What Are Versatile Hunting Dogs?
Versatile hunting dogs are almost exclusively European in origin. While different breeds cropped up in various countries, they were all bred to be an all purpose gundog. They should locate game, point it, flush it (if desired), track it, and retrieve it to hand. They are meant to hunt both feathered and furred game on both land and in the water. In North America, they are used mainly on birds but in Europe and Australia they are often used on rabbits and other fur game species. They are often called pointing breeds and people choosing to compete in American Kennel Club (AKC) hunting events will get to choose from pointing breed hunt tests or field trials. There are also specialized clubs that cater exclusively to all purpose gun dogs. These include the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVDHA) and the Versatile Hunting Dog Federation (VHDF). In some breeds, such as the German Shorthaired Pointer (GSP), there are groups that run tests similar to the country of origin’s as well.
Although they can be trained to work with a rider, these breeds were originally designed for the foot hunter. They are meant to quarter the field, running parallel to the wind currents while air scenting for game. They should stay within a range that allows them to hear the hunter and respond to direction. If the dog moves out of eyesight, he should double back to check in with the hunter periodically. When they find a scent, they slow down to follow it until they lock on point. The point can be dramatic and happen very suddenly. In general, these are very athletic dogs and they are quite agile. Most will work the field at a gallop although some breeds such as the Bracco Italiano and the Italian Spinone are slower than others. Once they’ve locked on point, they should, with proper training, hold point until given another command. Pointing is instinctive but holding point requires training. Some hunters prefer to flush the game up by themselves and this is what is done in AKC hunt tests. In Europe, the hunter gives a command and the dog flushes the game up for the shot. In either case, the dog must then wait patiently for the command to retrieve the shot animal. Although the AKC ignores the tracking aspect of the versatile gun dogs function, NAVDHA does not. They require the dog to track a blood trail. Water retrieves are required at various levels by both organizations.
Virtually all of the versatile gun dog breeds are very high energy with stamina to spare. If you are not interested in a breed that requires lots of regular exercise, then they are not for you. They are highly trainable and excel at other dog sports such as agility and flyball. They tend to bond closely with their families and like to have lots of human company. They do not do well as outdoor dogs that live in the yard rather than the house. They are usually good with children and other pets, other than rodents and birds. Socialization is important as they can be sensitive to noises and strange situations. Many of them are prone to separation anxiety if not given enough human companionship. In terms of grooming, there is a range depending on the breed you choose. The setters with their long, flowing coats require regular grooming while the short-coated breeds like the Vizsla and Pointer can get away with very little grooming beyond nail trimming and ear cleaning.
Instinct & Intensity
While many breeds can be trained to point and do many of the jobs that are part of a versatile dog’s duties, there is a difference between a dog that has been trained to do it and one that does it instinctively. While other breeds such as Labrador retrievers can be trained for it, they generally lack the sheer intensity of the pointing breeds, which literally quiver with desire when on point. Some breeds are more intense than others within the versatile dogs too though. Few weimaraners are kept as hunting dogs anymore and unless you get one from lines that emphasize it, you may have a harder time training them for the gun. On the other hand, many breeders of Brittany Spaniels, GSPs and German Wirehaired Pointers (GWPs) breed them for both the show ring and hunting and the instincts are fairly ingrained in most of them provided you get one from a good breeder, regardless of whether they come from “show” or “field trial” lines. In some breeds, particularly the Setters, there is often a distinct line between show and field bred dogs and the two may look extremely different from one another in everything from size and coat to the amount of bone they carry. This is not to say that a show bred setter cannot hunt, although it may take a bit more to bring that instinct out in them. There are some kennels that place an emphasis on dual purpose dogs and keep the instincts alive and well in their stock. Others specialize more in single purpose dogs capable of doing well in one venue or the other, but not both.
In Europe, they are often referred to as HPR (Hunt, Point, Retrieve) dogs. The following breeds are included in the versatile hunting dog group. Some are quite rare in North America and finding one may require importing one from overseas.
- German Shorthaired Pointer
- German Wirehaired Pointer
- German Longhaired Pointer
- Brittany Spaniel
- Vizsla (Smooth and Wirehaired)
- Bracco Italiano
- Italian Spinone
- Irish Setter
- English Setter
- Llewellin Setter
- Irish Red & White Setter
- Gordon Setter
- Large Munsterlander
- Small Munsterlanded
- Wirehaired Pointing Griffon
- French Spaniel
- Bracque Francais
- Blue Picardy Spaniel
There are a few other breeds recognized by NAVDHA but they are extremely rare in North America.
Finding a Breeder
The decision to purchase any dog should not be made lightly. Start by evaluating what you hope to achieve with the dog. What do you plan on hunting with it? How intensely do you hunt? Do you intend to compete in field trials with your dog? How much time do you want to spend grooming your dog? Research the breed and breeders. Try to find one that has a proven history of producing good hunting dogs. They may not hunt themselves, but they should be able to put you in touch with puppy owners of theirs that actively work their dogs. If you intend to field trial your dog, you need to find someone who actively competes with their dogs as they tend to have slightly different traits than a regular hunting dog since most trials are done from horseback and require a bigger running dog. All dogs have health issues. Make sure the breeder you choose does the appropriate health tests for the breed (see the national club`s website if you are unsure which tests should be done) and provides a written health guarantee (should be at least 2 years and preferably 5 years or more in terms of coverage) and a written bill of sale.
Who Should Choose A Versatile Gun Dog?
These breeds are meant for people who want a family dog that they can also hunt virtually anything with. If you only want to hunt ducks, get a retriever. If you want a dog that you can hunt pheasants, ducks, grouse, rabbits, and even deer with, then you need a versatile hunting dog. You do need to be prepared for a high energy dog that needs lots of daily exercise and attention. They thrive on training and are easy to work with. Most are happiest when they get out for a good run and then can come in and cuddle with you on the couch. If that’s what you are looking for in a dog, these are the breeds for you.
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