It’s probably not surprising that Dan Koon would want his first bird dog to look like the dogs he was already familiar with: hounds. So what kind of bird dog would that be? An English pointer, maybe? Perhaps a German shorthair?
Not even close. Koon’s first pointing dog was a Bracco Italiano, and if you’ve never heard of them before, well…neither had I. In fact, I still haven’t seen one up close and personal. This story was written via interviews with several people who own them.
I’ve covered some unusual dogs in my checkered career, but Braccos are perhaps the most unusual of the lot. Think of a dog with the short tail of a GSP and the droopy ears and jowls of a Shetland-pony sized, orange and white basset and you get the idea. Some of those accustomed to the racy lines of setters and pointers might consider the Bracco a tad on the unattractive side, but Koon and his wife Lane Conrad see beauty and intelligence in every drooping fold.
It’s not like the two haven’t been around enough dogs to know what they want. Conrad is a veterinary tech and dog groomer; Koon a chef who has raised horses and dogs all his life, including Rottweilers. The two also teach obedience and operate a unique, no-cage boarding kennel, Wash-n-Watchdogs, near Telluride, Colorado.
With that kind of background, neither wanted a run-of-the mill pointer. Today they have a website devoted to Braccos (www.braccousa.com), a small breeding operation, and an inexhaustible supply of enthusiasm. Koon talks about his initial exposure to the dogs.
“When I first met my wife, she had this dog book called the Encyclopedia of the Dog,” Koon recalls. “I was looking through it, and I’ve always been attracted to…well, let’s put it this way: I’ve been unattracted to what everyone else was doing. If everyone else was doing it, it was a guaranteed way not to have me doing it.
Why a bracco?
“What I was looking for was not necessarily a bird dog,” he says. “I wanted a dog that was still doing what it was supposed to be doing in life, and hadn’t been bred into a show dog, simple as that. I also wanted a large dog, a shorthaired dog and a short-tailed dog.”
That description fits the Braccos to a T, especially the size. A full grown Bracco Italiano male can tip the scales at 90 pounds; females run to 75.
With only a handful of breeders in the U.S. and something like 300 dogs in the country, Braccos have a long way to go before they’ll be considered an established American breed, but then, with only 3,000 dogs in their native Italy, they’re rare even there. Koon sees no reason why they shouldn’t be more popular on this side of the pond, however.
“The neat thing about the Bracco, aside from the fact that they’ve been around for 2,000 years, is their ability to turn on and off,” he says. “You can get a really high-powered Bracco that is a hunting machine, and you bring him into the house and he turns into a couch potato.
“They’re a true versatile dog,” he says. “They’re also intelligent, but they can be problematic with some people. You train a Bracco and you’ve got to stay a step ahead of them.”
Conrad likes the fact that they’re quick on the uptake. She wryly cites one episode (edited for the genteel ears of GUN DOG readers) as an example.
“When we first got Alba, our first dog, Alba liked to eat [poop]. We’ve got it all over the place here,” she says. “Horse, cow, pig, chukar, pigeon…we’ve got lots of it. So Dan kept commanding Alba not to eat it, but she kept on.
“Finally, one day, he gave her a good, sharp swat on the butt; she was five months old, I suppose. And she ignored him for 18 hours. But she never ate [poop] again. Once they get the lesson, they get the lesson.”
Unfortunately for Koon and Conrad, the only thing more rare than Braccos in their part of Colorado are gamebirds. Wild chukars are found in only a few rugged drainages, and the state‘s sparse population of scaled quail live on the prairies far to the east.
To compensate, they raise chukars and pheasants, which they use to liberally salt surrounding ranches. That ensures them a constant supply of birds for training and shooting, including an occasional trip into the mountains for blue grouse. Even so, Koon says he’s happy with the way his dogs are learning to handle birds on his sporadic trips elsewhere for pheasants.
Farther north, however, lives a man who hunts his Braccos on wild chukars, perhaps the most physically demanding gamebird anywhere. Ralph Minnitte hails from Gerlach, Nevada, about as far from nowhere as you can get. According to Minnitte (www.mybraccos.com), however, he’s right smack in the middle of some of the best chukar habitat in the state. Oddly enough, Minnitte also settled on Braccos after seeing them in a book.
“When I was a kid, my sister had a dog book, and I told my sister that when I was bigger,
I was going to get one of these dogs,” he says. “So about 10 or 11 years ago, when the inte
rnet first made it to Gerlach, I did my research and picked up a Bracco.” Prior to owning Braccos, Minnitte owned Chesapeakes, which he used for waterfowl. Chukars are considerably removed from ducks, however, and I was curious how well he thought his dogs handled the former.
“They handle them very well,” he says. “Because they’re such a big dog, a lot of people don’t think that they would last long on the terrain we have around here. But most of the guys I take, their dogs and my dogs, there’s a big difference. I can get three hard days of hunting out of mine, and that’s in rocky terrain.”
Part of the Bracco’s endurance could be due to their gait – they often hunt at what’s called an extended trot, rather than a lope or run. Conrad says the progression can go from a gallop, to a trot, then a creep, and finally a point as they close in on scent. In that regard, Conrad, Koon and Minnitte seem to be reading from the same script.
“They’re a good all-around dog,” Minnitte says, “as far as getting along with kids and other dogs and what not. The Braccos, they want to please you. They’re not as hyper as the German shorthairs or Brittanys, you know.
“They’re just a kind of a mellow dog. They have that unique trot out in the field, and will hunt with their heads up, and then when they get the scent of the bird, they’ll do this kind of trotting/hunt thing and then all of a sudden, boom! They’ll just lock right up. It’s so beautiful to see.”
A Different Look
There’s not much about Braccos that fits the typical American notion of what a bird dog should look like. They’re one of only two native Italian gun dog breeds (the other is the Spinone, a dog that resembles a griffon).
According to the www.braccousa.com website, the original dogs of centuries ago were believed to have been a cross between “either a Segugio Italiano (a coursing hound), or sighthounds brought to Italy by Phoenician traders from Egypt, bred to the Asiatic Mastiff, or Molossus.” And no, I have no idea what any of those dogs look like, but my guess is they were hound-like animals, because Bracco Italianos certainly have some hound blood in them somewhere.
They come in several colors other than orange and white: orange roan, bronze/brown, white/bronze and brown/roan. The dogs are slow to mature; most don’t hit their stride until they’re four or five years of age. On the upside, they can live to be 15.
Although their calm temperaments make them good house dogs, they need to be trained with a gentle, firm hand. Too much pressure puts them in a blue funk. Interestingly, the dogs seem to enjoy the water, and several Bracco owners he’s sold puppies to, Minnitte told me, are using the dogs primarily as duck fetchers.
Conrad, Koon and Minnitte were all adamant that the few puppies they produce—which are usually spoken for in advance—go only to homes that will hunt and train them. “An untrained Bracco,” Conrad told me, “would be a hellacious thing.”
Unfortunately, there are some breeding issues that need to be resolved, Minnitte says. Dysplasia and elbow problems show up on occasion, so before buying a pup it’s a good idea to make sure that the parents check out with a clean bill of health.
These aren’t dogs you’re likely to see in the field for some time to come. But if you’re ever near Telluride, Colorado, or Gerlach, Nevada, you might want to give Koon and Conrad or Ralph Minnitte a call. Something tells me they’d be happy to show you their dogs.
FOR MORE INFORMATION…
In addition to the breeder websites mentioned in the article, readers should also check out the website of the Bracco Italiano Club of America: www.thebraccoclub.org
Braccos are strong retrievers, as demonstrated by Izzy, owned by Keith and Valerie Kessler of Rancho Cordova, California.