The message from Gun Dog editor Rick Van Etten was brief: Would I be interested in writing a profile on Drents?
If you’ve never heard of Drentsche Patrijshonds — don’t even think about trying to pronounce the name — no need to get yourself all riled up and lonesome. With something like 75 of them in the U.S., the dogs need all the PR they can get. Luckily for them, they’ve got Brian O’Connor and John Lambregts working their corner. Between the two of them, they have enough enthusiasm to start their own breed club. Which, not entirely coincidentally, they incorporated in August 2008, and a web page is now up and running.
I wanted a chance to see the dogs work before writing a profile, but Lambregts lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho, a five-hour drive from my home, and O’Connor lives even farther away in New Mexico. What’s more, it’s not like I could saunter down to the local dog club and rent a Drent for the day. But I was going to Arizona to hunt, and O’Connor was living in the next state over, and if he wanted to jog over for a visit I’d show him a few Mearns quail and get a look at his dogs to boot.
A few weeks later, most of the current American contingent of Drent owners met me in a local coffee shop: Lambregts and his wife, Marsha, and O’Connor and his wife, Nikki. There were four of the handsome dogs among them: Bowi, Clio, Paxson and little Booker, a drop-dead cute, six-month-old puppy with a tail as long as a broom handle. Forthwith, we loaded up the whole squirming crew and struck out for the mountains.
Unfortunately for us, the Arizona mountains weren’t in a receptive mood. It hadn’t rained in weeks, and each step lifted little puffs of talc-like dust, which slowly drifted back down, coating the sere and dead grass around us and turning our boots a light, chalky brown. Worse, there were bird hunters in every coulee, and the coveys I’d hunted for years had been shot to hell and Sunday. Lacking other alternatives, I jabbed my finger more or less at random onto a map.
“We’ll hunt here,” I said, silently praying the drainage I’d chosen would hold at least a covey or two.
The dogs: Drents look a lot like Small Munsterlanders, another rare breed some of you may not be familiar with.
“Most people confuse them with springers,” Marsha Lambregts told me. “You get a lot of strange looks. And nobody knows what a Munsterlander looks like, either.”
In fact, they have the Munsterlander’s same spaniel-like liver and white markings on the face and back, same long tails, although perhaps a bit stockier and bigger boned. Lambregts, a native of the Netherlands, says that the Munsterlanders just across the border in Germany are indeed closely related, although many of the Dutch claim the dogs originated in Spain.
Drents may also suffer the same German territoriality. The minute we turned the dogs loose, the two biggest, Bowi and Paxson, immediately started a feud. But it was all snarling and posturing, and the moment Lambregts pulled the dogs apart they went their ways with no apparent hard feelings. With the temperature rising by the minute, we decided to run all four dogs at once, including Booker, the puppy.
Mearns quail live on steep, rocky hillsides as well as in the flat and sandy washes below them. Naturally, the drainage I’d picked was long on steep and short on flat, and before long the dogs were clambering over the rocky slopes above. All five of us — the Lambregts, the O’Connors, and me — plodded along behind.
With any number of other breeds, it would have been a far more difficult task to keep up. Drents — at least the ones I saw — are emphatically not big-running dogs. They’re content to stay within a few dozen yards of the gun, although from time to time one of them would punch out to 60 or 70 yards. But then, without fail, they’d turn, and, looking for John or Brian, amble back to within a couple dozen yards.
They often run with low heads, pausing to work out puzzling scent, then lope off in search of more. The four of them, romping and weaving in and out, looked like a slow-moving brown and white cascade: never fast or abrupt, but pressing forward at a stately trot. And happy. It was obvious they were enjoying themselves, although my sense was that they had not yet figured out just what kind of bird they were looking for.
Because of their extremely close range, Drents may not be the best choice for wide open country, the kind of stuff best suited to big-running pointers and setters (although John Lambregts is a serious sharptailed grouse hunter back home in Idaho, so what do I know?) But for close-in birds like pheasants and grouse, close-ranging dogs are exactly what the majority of American bird hunters want.
Unfortunately, although the Mearns should have been ideally suited to our contingent of Drents that day, the Mearns, like the weather, just weren’t in the mood to play. Time and again one of the dogs would stop, snuffle around, and then, finding nothing, move on. It had to have been frustrating for their owners.
We were an hour into the hunt before I cut fresh sign. Neither the O’Connors nor the Lambregts had hunted Mearns before, so I decided a brief tutorial was in order. I pointed dramatically at the circular ring of droppings, then the diggings nearby, where the birds had been excavating topsoil with their huge, clawed feet, looking for oxalis bulbs.
“Quail!” I announced proudly, for lo, even the blind hog occasionally findeth the acorn. But it was Marsha, behind me with one of the dogs, who actually found the birds, stepping squarely into the middle of the covey.
They flew over a hill into a steep-walled cirque, where I suspected we’d be able to pick up some singles. And for once I was right. I grabbed my camera and clambered up the ridge overlooking the canyon below while Brian, Marsha and Brian’s two Drents, Paxson and little Booker, worked their way up the middle of it. I was certain we’d get a point at last. But it was not to be.
Halfway through, singles began going up one by one, one of the endearing — and exasperating — characteristics of the birds. At each flush, Brian or Marsha would shoulder his or her shotgun, then slowly lower it. Conscientious sportsmen through and through, neither would take a shot they weren’t sure of.
The dogs, meanwhile, seemed a bit puzzled by it all. When they were ahead the birds flushed from behind; when they dropped behind the birds squirted out ahead. I watched the tableau unfold from my hawks-eye view a hundred feet above, frustrated that we couldn’t quite get the dogs, the birds and the gunners on the same theater of operations.
But that’s the way bird hunting is. An experienced Mearns dog might have pointed, perhaps, two or three of the singles Brian and Marsha walked up, but neither Drent had yet to see or scent a Mearns quail, and in the bone dry dust under a blazing winter sun, even my dogs, who have been hunting Mearns for years, had of late been out of position and blowing by coveys.
Finally, Brian kicked up a bird at his feet, shouldered his gun, and at long last, found the shot he was looking for. He pulled the trigger, and with military perfunctoriness — not surprising for a Senior Master Sergeant in the Air Force — promptly put the little bird’s beak in the dirt. We were on the scoreboard.
Drents have a utilitarian past, and one not devoted strictly to hunting. “In Holland,” John told me, “hunting was reserved for blue bloods, except for the province of Drenthe (where Van Gogh spent his idle time lopping off his ears). “Their background is being a farm dog. If there was a fox around, they (the owner’s Drent) were supposed to take it out. Sometimes, they were even used for pulling carts.”
Everyone was in agreement that the dogs were family dogs first and hunters second, exactly opposite, I suspect, of the prevailing American mindset. Brian nodded. “There’s a super heavy emphasis on family,” he told me.
Although Drents aren’t always as demonstrative as, say, English setters, they can, nonetheless, form powerful bonds with their owners. Brian is a competitive bicycle racer, and one day, towing Paxon along for a training run, he got himself crossway’s with the dog’s leash and flipped over the handle bars. As he lay groaning, his arm broken, his dog ran back.
“Paxson came over and was licking my face, then curled up beside me,” O’Connor recalls. “He knew I was hurt.”
Bowi, John and Marsha Lambregts’ dog, was bought from a breeder who, due to a divorce, had got the dog back from its first owner. Lambregts says he knew he had something the first day he took him afield.
“I went and put him out with three other dogs,” he recalls, laughing. “He went out and blew through three coveys of birds on the other side of the field. I said, ‘Yeah, I like this.’ He just had so much talent. He was a keeper.” The O’Connors had several other dogs before getting their first Drent, including a Brittany, which they got from a rescue organization. “We finally decided we wanted to screw up our own dogs,” he jokes.
Although their dogs’ hunting background may be a bit more casual than a typical American field-bred breed, there’s nothing casual about Brian or John’s love of sport. O’Connor chases scaled quail on a regular basis on his Alamagordo military base, and John and Marsha Lambregts root out pheasants and sharptailed grouse in Idaho. Both tell me their dogs have become proficient at pinning these notoriously hard to pin gamebirds.
LUCK OF THE DRAW
My luck, however, was drying up faster than the Arizona topsoil, and we simply couldn’t get a point on my watch. That afternoon, though, while I sat nursing a glass of wine in my camper, the Lambregts and O’Connors went back out on their own. Despite the heat, they found another covey and had several solid points. Without my expert help, if you can believe that.
The following morning was more of the same. When Bowi began making game, I heard Lambregts announce, “Bird tail! Bird tail!” I swapped directions and charged toward the dog, who was hidden in the trees somewhere above me, hoping that, finally, I’d get a picture of a Drent on point. But a moment later the covey took off. With the kind of hunting pressure the birds had been under, the survivors were getting goosey.
John had shot his first Mearns earlier that morning, and I dropped a handsome little rooster at the tail end of the day, which Nikki cradled in her hands all the way back to the truck. But we finished the hunt with a lot of miles under the dogs and precious little action. The birds just weren’t around.
Still, when all was said and done, it was hard not to like the Drents. They’re friendly and handsome, clearly dogs better suited to living inside with their owners than outside in a kennel.
“The reason we picked this dog was that it had the personality and the right size…it was just love at first sight,” Nikki O’Connor told me. “Their character really interests me — I just love it.” But Drents, she says, “will try to take you over. You have to be the boss.”
Lambregts, in his flawless English, agreed, telling me that the dogs take a “firm but gentle hand.”
Sounds like good advice for any breed. I wonder if it works on quail?
For more information, see the breed club’s website: www.dpcna.org