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An English system for German dogs?

Craig Koshyk

Recently, a thread was started on the Working HPR gundog forum about the creation of a club for German hunting dog breeds in the United Kingdom. I found the subject very interesting and offered the following observations:

The development of our pointing breeds,British and continental, and the breeding, testing and registration systems we've invented for them has followed the ebb and flow of various cultural, social and political forces. Let's not forget that all the pointing breeds started in southern europe. They then spread across the continent and into the UK in the 1600s (longhaired setting dogs) and after the War of Spanish succession in 1715 (short haired pointing dogs "braque" and "old spanish pointers").Then for the next century and a half, they sort of languished on the continent, taking on regional characteristics but not really advancing beyond the fairly primitive model from the south.

Meanwhile in the UK, the 1700s and 1800s were years of unbridled innovation and advancement. Aided by the huge leap forward in livestock breeding techniques pioneered by Robert Bakewell in the 1770s, and driven by fierce competition within a growing class of nouveau riche, landed gentry and various other social climbers, pointing dog development shifted into high gear. British innovation, a genius for animal husbandry and the free enterprise system transformed long-haired setting dogs and short-haired pointing dogs into the various Setters and the Pointer.

And after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, these improved versions of the old breeds returned to the land of their ancestors. When they did, it was as if a bomb had gone of on the continental sporting scene. It is hard to overemphasis the impact. British Pointers and Setters were light years ahead of the continental breeds and stunned the dog-men of the day. Breeders across the continent stampeded to either get some of the dogs for themselves or to breed their dogs to them. Some even admitted it, many, due to nationalism and other social restrictions, did not. But it is safe to say that there is not a single, solitary pointing breed on the continent that does not have at least a drop or two of British blood in it. Some are clearly half breeds, others, more like 9/10th breeds.

The British influence is still very strong to this day. The English setter is the most popular pointing breed in France and Italy where over 20 thousand (!) are bred each year. Pointers are very popular everywhere and are still used (by the light of the moon) to add speed, range and nose to many breeds. The British competitive system of field trials and dog shows still dominates in many countries and now regularly produces Setters and Pointers that would run circles around their relatives back in the UK. So what happened?

Why are we now discussing setting up a German based non-competitive system in the UK? How did the Brits go from absolute monarchs of the pointing dog kingdom to net importers of types of dogs that the average 19th century English Sportsman would have considered curiosities at best, and wooly-haired pointing pigs at worst? Well it turns out that the "wooly-haired pointing pigs" were actually damn good dogs. And when the British pointing breeds made their way to the continent in the early 1800s, they rocked the world of hunters there. So breeders set their sights on building an even better mousetrap.

Some, like the French, Italians, Dutch, Danish adopted the British system of competitive trials and conformation shows. They now produce some of the best pointing dogs in the world. The Germans, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians came up with their own system of non-competitive tests. And they too succeeded in building better mousetraps for the average hunter that wanted a do-it-all kind of dog.

Meanwhile, back in Jolly Old England, it was the Brits' turn to let their pointing breeds languish. Pointers and Setters split into (mainly) show and (very few) field lines and the average British rough shooter migrated to spaniels and labs. Where there were once over a hundred kennels and dozens of lines of working Pointers and Setters, there were soon only a handful, if that.

So after couple of world wars and several decades of British servicemen and women being stationed in Germany and elsewhere, the continental breeds began to arrive on British shores. And they were no longer thought of as wooly-haired pointing pigs. They were now seen as fantastic do-it-all dogs that the Brits christened "HPRs".

The German breeds were the first to really take off. They rekindled interest in pointing dogs in the UK but found themselves to be a sort of square peg in a round hole. They were breeds from a system that was not based on field trials and dogs shows. They were products of a non-competitive all-round testing system.  But no such system existed in the UK. The only venue available to them to prove their abilities under judgment were field trials and dogs shows. So they adapted. Some, like the Weimaraner, became a mainly a show dog (and couch potato), others like the GSP retained and even improved some aspects of its working ability via the field trial system. But none of the German breeds were tested for the exact same things in the UK as they were tested for in German and so they tended to diverged from the original design.

So here we are today, wondering what sort of system could be established to reconcile two very  different approaches to breeding and proving pointing dogs. My answer is "I don't know'. The Brits could look at the North American model and systems like NAVHDA and go from there. Or they could just import, wholesale, the German system like some clubs have done in the US. But I am not British and I have no idea what sort of thing would stimulate enough interest and gain enough gravitas to succeed. However, I am an optimist, so I do believe that a system could be created or imported.

But here's the rub... and it is a big rub: I fear that the age of innovation and excellence in pointing dog breeding has come to an end. The very hunting culture for which our dogs were designed is in slow but steady decline and the doors now seem to be closed to new breeds or new initiatives.

Let's face it, the very essence of kennel clubs is not innovation, evolution or progress. Kennel clubs are  the social equivalent of aspic in which we seek to seal our breeds "as is" forever and ever, despite paying lip service to the idea of "improving" them. The last great systemic shakeup in pointing dogs, I believe, was the creation of NAVHDA in the very early 1970s and the creation of North America chapters of the German clubs in the 70s and 80s. So from here on out, despite all the improved communication the Internet has brought us and despite more exchange of genetic material via cheap travel and pet passports, inevitably, the pointing dog culture will become increasingly marginalized until it is truly a niche, within a niche, within a niche.

So does that mean one should not try to create a British system for HPR evaluation? No. Does it mean no one should try to form a UK chapter of a German breed club? I don't think so.

But what is does mean is that the task will become more difficult every year. So if you are going to do it, do it now. None of us is getting any younger -- when was the last time you saw a group of 20 somethings discussing dogs and hunting and testing and trials? The clock is ticking on the fate of hunting in many countries. This may be the last chance that the continental pointing dogs in the UK will ever have of getting their act together.