As recently as 1985, Linda Nickerson would have laughed had anyone suggested she would become one of the premier breeders of working German shorthaired pointers, or any other kind of dogs, for that matter. She wasn’t a dog person.
It all started by accident, when her husband John decided he wanted a dog for upland bird hunting. Trouble was, he couldn’t decide between two breeds, the wirehair and the shorthair. Linda listened to his arguments for and against eachÃ‚â€¦and listenedÃ‚â€¦and listened. Finally, relying on her wifely intuition, she ended his indecision. She went out and bought him a shorthair pup from top field-trial breeding. Later, at the suggestion of the pro that trained the dog, they entered him in a field trial. In no time, Linda was hooked. She became a serious field trialer, and then very quickly an even more serious shorthair breeder. John, although he still loves to hunt with their dogs, has never become deeply involved with trials. “He’s very supportive,” Linda said. “And he pays the bills!”
The bills for serious field trialing of any type–pointing breeds, retrievers or spaniels–are considerable, since they include maintenance and professional training for several dogs, as well as the entry fees and travel expenses associated with 20 or more trials a year. Those who trial pointing dogs have several additional expenses. They must pop for one or more horses, the associated maintenance, a horse and dog trailer, and perhaps a special truck to pull all this impedimenta to and from trials.
Unlike most neophyte field trialers, Linda started winning almost immediately. Soon she was winning with dogs of her own breeding, which she continues to do with no apparent end in sight. Clearly, she has been breeding very talented dogs and doing it consistently. Ergo, she is an exceptionally talented Shorthair breeder. Why did she choose “Blue Max” (sometimes shortened to “BMK”) as her kennel name?
“Remember the German Blue Max medal,” she asked, “in the movie Blue Max with George Peppard? I loved that movie, and these are German dogs, soÃ‚â€¦”
By whatever name, these dogs are phenomenal. (Shakespeare said something like that about roses; in fact, he may have said it even a little better.) So let’s take a look at Blue Max shorthairs, both as field trial competitors and as hunting dogs. Then let’s look at Linda’s breeding program.
FIELD TRIAL RECORD
Their field trial accomplishments over the past 15 years boggle the mind. They have placed 38 times in AKC and FDSB national championship trials (17 championships, 12 runner-ups, 3 thirds and 6 fourths). They have placed 35 times in FDSB regional championship trials (16 championships and 19 runner-ups). They have placed nine times in FDSB species (pheasant, quail, chukar) championship trials (five championships and four runner-ups). And they have completed 12 (AKC) FC and AFC titles. What’s more, by the time you read this, some of those numbers will almost certainly have increased!
Amazingly, Linda has bred only five litters, and not every pup has gone to a field trial home. Then, too, having no previous dog breeding experience, she had to go through a learning process that typically takes many years. She started in 1986, and had her first home-bred national champion in 1992. Linda is indeed a fast learner.
“I’ve been very, very lucky,” she said.
Not so, methinks. Luck is a once-in-a-lifetime or, at best, a now-and-then thing. Linda’s success has been consistent, year after year. Clearly, she came into the sport with a natural talent, a flair if you will, for dog breeding, which she has honed into expertise in a short time.
“She’s a remarkable woman,” said Bob Dressler of Kansas City, Missouri, who has been trialing and hunting shorthairs since 1951 and currently has two from Linda’s breeding. “She’s extremely intelligent, very persistent and uncannily observant. Then, too, she’s highly competitive, likes to win and does, regularly.” To win field trials, a dog must run big, must really reach out for far-away places. Linda’s dogs do exactly that, some more than others, of course. Some run in the all-age stakes, where extremes of range are the norm. Others run in AKC gundog and FDSB shooting dog stakes, where ranges are more moderate, but still a bit breathtaking for the average foot hunter. So, how suitable are Blue Max shorthairs for the typical Gun Dog reader?
“My dogs get out and move,” Linda said, “ranging out a mile or more in field trials. But, when you’re on foot, they shorten up appropriately.”
Keith Gulledge of Eureka, Kansas, the pro who trains Linda’s dogs, confirmed that by saying, “Range is a development thing. We encourage trial dogs to run big when we ride horses. But I hunt all these dogs, too, and when I take them out hunting on foot, they shorten up and hunt to the gun very nicely. Then, at a field trial, when I get on a horse and blow the whistle, they know it’s time to rock and roll.”
The “range war” between field trialers and foot hunters, which has raged longer than the Hundred Years War between France and England, may soon endÃ‚â€¦with both sides emerging as winners. A relatively new weapon, the modern e-collar, makes further skirmishing pointless. With the e-collar, the hunter can control the range of any collar-conditioned pointing dog. And, these days, almost all field trial dogs have advanced degrees in electronics. Even before the e-collar, this range war made little sense, for most top field trial dogs have always shortened up when hunting. Why? For two reasons: the difference in grounds and the perception of the dogs. Field trialers choose relatively open grounds, specifically to demonstrate the range of their dogs. Hunters choose tighter cover, where their dogs can find more birds. Then, too, bird dogs aren’t stupid. They learn to adapt their pace to the length of the hunt. Any half-bright dog figures out that when the boss jumps onto a horse, the hunt will last only 30 minutes or an hour, so he reaches out, especially in open country with distant objectives. But when the boss grabs a shotgun and starts walking, the same dog
knows the hunt may well last all day. To conserve his energy, he slows down and stays in close, especially where the cover’s tight with lots of birdy places. So, even before the e-collar, most good field trial dogs also made good foot-hunting dogs. Here I speak of good field trial dogs, the ones that run big only to find birds, not the minority of brainless wonders that love to run but don’t really hunt. Of course, today, with the e-collar, you could control the range of even these idiots if you wanted to.
“There’s a strong connection between range and desire to find birds,” said Ken Huggins, DVM, of Olathe, Kansas, who has hunted shorthairs for 28 years, and for the past six years has had Blue Max dogs. “If trialers stopped breeding all-age dogs with great range and endurance, we’d gradually lose our hunting dogs, too. We’d end up with dogs that were underfoot all the time. I hunt my two Blue Max shorthairs 30 to 35 days a year and keep them within 50 to 100 yards. For a while, I had to use the e-collar on my male, Pete, but never on my female, Nikki. Now I hunt them both without e-collars.”
“Both my dogs have FC titles,” said Mike Dougherty of Metairie, Louisiana, who has had Blue Max shorthairs for 10 years. “Doc got his title in the gun dog stake. Ginny got hers in the all age stake. But, when hunting, I can keep them in as close as I want. I have to use the e-collar on Ginny, but not on Doc. Both are outstanding bird finders. I’ve had other shorthairs that were good at finding where birds have been. These two find where they are.”
“Although my Blue Max dogs are from field trial lines,” said Jerry Veneklasen of Overland Park, Kansas, a certified instructor with Sporting Clays of America, who operates Wingmaster Shooting School and uses his shorthairs for both hunting and teaching, “I haven’t had any problem keeping them within 50 or 60 yards when hunting. I hunt them with the e-collar, but almost never have to use it.”
Perhaps Dressler summed up the connection between trial dogs and hunting when he said, “All the top trial dogs are hunted. Why? It takes birds to make a bird dog. While hunting, trial dogs learn where to find birds. That’s how they become tops in trials.”
In breeding her dogs, Linda has very definite goals, as do most serious breeders. But Linda–through some combination of natural talent, research and observation–has achieved her goals more consistently than most. Let’s look at what she’s breeding physically, in temperament and relative to hunting instincts.
Blue Max shorthairs are medium-sized animals, running 55 to 60 pounds, standing about 25 inches at the withers. That height-to-weight ratio makes them a bit more leggy, a bit more lofty than many shorthairs. Although she doesn’t show her dogs on the bench, she is concerned about conformation, and seems to have a natural eye for it (as the accompanying photos demonstrate). Her dogs are quite muscular.
“Blue Max dogs have good muscle definition,” Dr. Huggins said. “Dogs are like people. Some people can work out in the gym for years and never develop good definition while other people are born with it. Blue Max dogs have good definition naturally, and when they are worked regularly, they really muscle up.” This combination of loftiness and muscle mass give them a very fluid movement in the field. They run with long, smooth strides, covering the ground with little effort. Thus, they not only please the eye more than dogs with choppy, earth-pounding gaits, but they also have greater endurance.
“When running, my dogs touch the ground softly,” Linda said, with more than a touch of pride.
Because of her dog’s field trial and hunting achievements, it may at first seem surprising that Linda’s major breeding consideration is temperament! Blue Max dogs are super friendly and people-oriented. That, of course, translates into high trainability, which in turn translates into excellence afield, whether hunting or trialing. “All our dogs are house-dogs,” she said. “We have no kennel runs. Our yard isn’t even fenced. I spend lots of time with my puppies, right from the time they’re born. I play with them, one on one, daily. We take them with us when we go places, to expose them to many people and new experiences. Thus, they grow up very sure of themselves around people, and around, well, anything.”
“My two Blue Max shorthairs really, really like me,” said Dr. Huggins. “They’re hunting dogs, but they’re also pets. They’re tail-wagging, love-you-to-death, happy dogs. As a veterinarian, I’ve found that shorthairs in general like people more than many other breeds. But Linda’s shorthairs like people 10 times more. I attribute this to both genetics and the way she raises her litters.”
“Linda’s dogs have a lot of personality,” Gulledge said. “They’re great hunting dogs, great trial dogs, but they still love to be with people. I enjoy working with them, and when I’m happy with a dog, he’s happy to be working for me.”
“I breed for good noses and strong pointing instinct,” Linda said. “Simply stated, I want them to find and point birds. I also breed for good style on point and natural retrieving.”
“They show a strong pointing instinct very early,” Gulledge said. “Ditto for backing. They retrieve naturally. Of course, I force-break all the trial dogs. But the ones that go to hunting homes are seldom force-broken. They retrieve naturally all their lives.”
“Both Baron and Jager retrieve very well,” Veneklasen said. “Baron had to be force-broken, but only because he didn’t bring the bird all the way back. He’d drop it several yards away and resume hunting. Jager is totally natural and retrieves beautifully. Both my dogs retrieve from water, and Jager really loves it.” “Both of mine retrieve beautifully,” Dr. Huggins said. “Straight out, straight back, and they weren’t force-broken.”
Since Linda averages only about one litter every three years, and since her dogs are so popular, the demand for her puppies greatly exceeds the supply. Then, too, she’s particular about where she places her youngsters. But her major criterion may surprise you. She doesn’t insist that those who buy her pups run them in trials, although, like any serious breeder, she would prefer that, and for obvious reasons.
“My first consideration is that the dog will have a good home,” she said. “I prefer that they live in the house and get lots of personal attention. I’ve turned down good friends because I didn’t think they would give the dog the right kind of home. Turning friends down is tough, but I feel I have to do it sometimes.”
If you’re fortunate enough (or persuasive enough) to reserve a Blue Max puppy, and if you live some distance from Linda’s home, figure on driving there to pick up your youngster. She doesn’t like to put them on airplanes.
“I have flown puppies to new owners,” she said, “but only occasionally, and in unusual circumstances. Frankly, I’d rather not. I’ve heard so many horror stories.”