by   David Hancock

In 2016, fewer than 2,000 of our native bird-dogs were newly registered with the KC against some 3,000 Hungarian Vizslas alone. The appeal of the European all-rounders has triumphed.  Pointing dogs have been known on the mainland of Europe since the thirteenth century, Brunetto Latini writing in 1260: '...others are brachs with falling ears, which know of beasts and birds by their scent' and Albertus Magnus recording in 1280: '...they get to find the partridge by scent and thus...they point...at the birds.' But the Romans too made reference to a shaggy-haired dog called the Tuscan, which would indicate unseen game, such a dog being of great value to hunters of any century, before and after the invention of firearms. Early in the 17th century, the naturalist Conrad von Gesner noted that: '... We Germans and the French call these dogs quail-dogs...the Italians call them net-dogs.' He referred to such dogs as Vorstehhund, literally, dog that stands before.

In the 18th century, Johann Tantzer was writing that 'the best way to take partridges, as done by princes and nobles, is to shoot the birds neatly, with a pointing dog and nets. The sort of dog that is used is white and brown marked, or white and speckled.' At this time, there were distinct types of pointer in Spain: a heavier scenthound type, believed to have been introduced from Italy in the 13th century, and the racier, lighter-boned, braque-type favoured to the north in Central Europe. In time, this latter type emerged in many different regions, as far apart as Weimar and Transdanubia, Poitou and Compiegne, Auvergne and Brabant. Setter-like dogs were favoured in Brittany, Picardy, Prussia, Friesland and Drente. Coarse-haired, griffon-type pointing dogs were preferred in Piedmont, Lombardy, Hessen and Slovenia.

In both Hungary and Germany, pointing dogs were produced in smooth, coarse and long-haired varieties, to give us the Vizslas and the pointer breeds from Germany of today. According to Gregor Wenzel, the Vizsla was known in the region of the kings of the House of Arpad (11th to 14th centuries) but was used as an all-purpose hunting dog until the late 19th century. At that time, the German pointer was being standardised through Hector I and Waldin, a whole-coloured brown dog. The Weimaraner, like the Vizsla, was initially used as a multi-purpose hunting dog, for tracking deer and boar, for instance. Liver-roan smooth-haired pointing dogs were not however confined to Germany, as the French pointers indicate - the braque version finding favour across a wide field.

  If you look too at the depictions of pointers in Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries, you can see portrayals of dappled or roan dogs, of continental type. The British nobility indulged themselves in Grand Tours on the continent, to study art and architecture, and sporting tours, to savour a different style of hunting and shooting. It is very likely that when impressed by local dogs they would wish to purchase some and try them at home. Sir William Beechey's portrait of Richard Thompson in the late 18th century depicts a mid-European type of pointing dog. A number of other paintings around that time tend to indicate that continental pointing dogs were being imported. Perhaps the German pointers have been here longer than we have acknowledged.      

  Germany has every right to be proud of its gundog breeds. When I was first based in Germany, fifty years ago, the gundog favoured locally was the Small Munsterlander. The next time, in a different location, the Korthals Griffon vied with the German Wire-haired Pointer and, around the third location I worked in, local sportsmen used the attractive Langhaar, which I first thought to be an Irish Setter, so great was the resemblance. All were essentially working dogs. If I had imported a gundog from Germany after each of these experiences, it would have been a different breed each time. Location as well as the merit of the dogs would have played a part. Some German sportsmen too favoured British gundogs. But I was able to assess breeds like the four varieties of German pointer, by name, including the less well known Stichelhaar or 'bristle-haired' pointer, stichel being linked to our word stickle, as in stickle-back. I didn't see the Pudelpointer  at work, but did see the German 'spaniel', the workmanlike Wachtelhund, or quail dog. I was told of a lost breed, the 'dreifarbiger Wurttemberger', a tricolour coarse-haired pointer once favoured in the south and likely to have been subsequently subsumed by a sister gundog breed.

The coarse-haired griffon-pointers, favoured in Germany, Italy, Hungary and what is now the Czech republic, had a reputation for greater hardiness and persistence. There are distinct similarities between the Hungarian coarse-haired griffon, the drotszoruvizsla, the Cesky Fousek and the Korthals Griffon. Korthals developed his variety from German and French breeds including the Barbet, avoiding the use of hound blood that brought with it contrasting instincts and temperament. He was Dutch-born, but lived in Biebesheim, hunting in the marshes between the Rhine and Main rivers. In the 1870s he began with seven rough-haired dogs, obtained in France, Germany and Holland. He eventually produced a number of superlative hunting dogs, with superb stamina, remarkable scenting powers and hard bristle-textured waterproof coats. This has led to the blood of this breed being used again and again in the breeding of German Wire-haired Pointers. 

In the 1980s there was widespread prejudice against the 'Hunt, Point and Retrieve' breeds (HPRs) or continental all-rounders, in Britain. One writer, in an article tendentiously entitled 'The Teutons', wrote: "I do not want an HPR...Nevertheless, I can see that the German dogs have their uses..." Such damning with faint praise didn't prevent more open-minded British sportsmen from taking on 'The Teutons'. In 1984, 740 German short-haired pointers and 893 Weimaraners were registered with the KC. In 2007, 1,497 GSPs and 2,724 Weimaraners were registered here. These all-rounders are evidently here to stay. In 2016, 1,485 GSPs, 1,138 Weimaraners and 2,333 Hungarian Vizslas were registered, against only 574 of our own Pointer and 285 English Setters - both now on the list of vulnerable native breeds. The preferences of gundog users and of sportsmen in Britain are now very clear. A distinct change too in our style of shooting is demonstrated.

In the late 1950s, the esteemed Michael Brander wrote his classic 'The Roughshooter's Dog', inspiring many future owners. In 1989, Tony Jackson, edited a new book 'Hunter-Pointer-Retriever', beautifully illustrated by Marion Jones, which I contributed to, and did much to spread the word. Before that, writer-photographer David Layton's book 'All Purpose Gundog' did much to explain the differing training needs of the HPR breeds, and they are different.  The German pointers have found favour with rough-shooters here. The rough-shooter expects his dog to range wide or close according to the terrain, confirmed by the handler's signals. The dog is expected to be a ground-scenter and an air-scenter, a soft-mouthed retriever and a game-finder. It should be capable of holding game on point until its handler is within range and then flush it. It must be able to work with equal ability in water, dense cover or in open country.

It is hardly surprising that a dog which has to adapt its range, head-height and pace, and then find, point and retrieve shot game, is open to criticism from purist pointer users. It is unreasonable to expect such a wide repertoire to be instilled easily or perfected effortlessly in such a gundog. The all-rounders demand more time and more enlightened handling; they are not utility dogs for tyro-sportsmen but complex dogs for knowledgeable rough shooters. The HPR breeds show early signs of instinctive behaviour yet mature slowly. A German short-haired Pointer at one year is very different from, say, a Labrador of that age. Professional trainers are therefore given less scope and this could result in talented amateur owner-handlers, able and willing to devote more time to their dogs, excelling with HPR breeds.

This slowness to mature must never be confused with stupidity or lack of innate ability. Here is a group of dogs that can follow wounded game or track deer and boar, work with the falcon, quarter ground close or wide, hold game on point, flush on command, mark and retrieve shot game, work in water and dense cover, withstand the cold and the wet, and yet provide companionable loyalty and affection for their owners. These highly versatile dogs were developed in a stern demanding school by experienced sportsmen over several centuries. We should recognise and enjoy their special talents and their spiritual needs. 

I am not surprised that the German gundogs have excelled. The early imports in each German pointer breed came from working stock, you could see this in their conformation and uniformity of type. Since then I suspect that the show dogs have separated from the dogs expected to work. I now see in the ring dogs with too short a back, over-boned specimens, coarse dogs with loose movement in front and, increasingly, short upper arms. The set of tail seems to vary widely and the coats in the wire-haired entry defy the breed standard, which states that the coat should lie close to the body, with the outer coat thicker and harsh. Coat colour seems to be accompanied by other genetic tendencies. In the GWHPs the solid livers and mainly blacks tend to have shorter coats than the liver and whites.

In GSPs the 'white factor' or white body, liver head and pink pads, has cropped up here as well as in the USA. The tricolours, defined as 75% black, 10% liver and 15% white, considered highly undesirable both in GSPs and GWHPs, have been described by one coat-colour expert geneticist as 'impossible'! The colour black still excites discussion in the GSP world. In the 1920s, Christian Bode, with his Altenauer strain, became concerned about poor pigmentation in his stock, mainly yellow eyes and pale faded coats. He introduced the blood of a black Pointer to rectify this, with success, although objections to this coat colour in GSPs continues today, especially in America. His dogs were once referred to as Prussian shorthairs and his methods illustrate the value of improvement in defiance of dogma, perennially needed in breeding animals but rarely seen in the world of the pure bred dog today.

Prejudice about colour influenced the emergence of the Munsterlander, especially the large variety. Originating in Munsterland in Prussia rather than the land around Munster further south, as often claimed, this distinctive breed was born from bias against black Langhaars. The latter were often given to farmers and not favoured by sportsmen, some of whom disputed their 'pure German' blood, because they were not the more acceptable liver-brown. At one time the blue roan coats were not desired in Large Munsterlanders and solid black heads preferred.  The Langhaar is gaining ground in Britain; it may look like a setter but works as an all-rounder. In Holland it is the favoured wildfowler's dog. A Dutch Langhaar won the title of World Field Trial Champion in Spain some twenty years ago. It is an extremely handsome breed with an admirably wide range of coat colours. Combining handsomeness with usefulness has long been man's desire in breeds of dog. The German gundogs have always had to earn their keep and I hope British fanciers will honour this heritage. The German gundog breeds once sneered at as 'Teutons' are here on merit and deserve to be perpetuated as highly competent working dogs - and handsome ones too.