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Breed Profile: German Wirehaired Pointer

by Chad Mason   |  October 11th, 2013 7

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“German wirehaired pointer” is a term that means different things to different people. Wired for versatility, this sturdy and respected line has diverged into two distinct breeds heading in vastly different directions. To appreciate what all the fuss is about, and determine which breed is best for you, it helps to understand the history.

Several types of dogs contributed to the ancestry of today’s German wirehaired pointer (GWP). Griffons, foxhounds, poodles and shorthaired pointers all figured into the family tree at some point. German hunters bred these dogs in varying proportions until they created a distinct breed around 1880. They called it the Drahthaar (pronounced DROT-har, not DROTH-ar), which means “wirehair.” A national breed club was established in Germany in 1902. The breed eventually followed German immigrants and American servicemen to the U.S., where the “German wirehaired pointer” was first recognized by the AKC in 1959.

The original German breeders had a much broader vision of versatility than we have in America. For Americans, “versatile” generally denotes a dog that does double-duty on upland birds and waterfowl. The Germans envisioned a dog that would hunt upland birds, waterfowl, hares, squirrels, foxes, wildcats, deer and boars. Consequently, they wanted a dog with the requisite resolve to track, locate and, in some cases, dispatch game.

The original GWP incorporated elements of vastly different breed types—the trainability of a bird dog and the relentless determination of a hound. Of course, hound blood brings something else with it besides determination—what I call “ground-orientation.” Some old-style German wirehairs were inclined to hunt nose-down, precisely what their originators wanted. American-style bird dogs are more wind-oriented; they hunt with their heads up.

Moreover, the breed’s original purpose required sufficient tenacity to deal with defensive prey. Foxes, wildcats and boars are no pushovers when cornered. As a result, the genes of the GWP’s ancestors were coded with a bit of back-alley, bare-knuckle toughness. The Germans recognized in order to retrieve game, the dog might need to kill it first. I avoid the word aggressiveness here only because of its negative connotation in America today, but some 19th-century Germans might have considered it a compliment.

The breed’s developers also had very specific weather, terrain and habitat rigors in mind. Those rigors led them to produce a relatively tall dog, amply muscled, with a body length only slightly greater than the dog’s height to enhance agility. More saliently, they wanted a very particular kind of coat that protected the dog from heavy cover and cold water, but was also easy to maintain.

The answer was a two-part coat, consisting of a dense base layer and a wiry, flat-lying top coat. And of course there are the “facial furnishings,” which somehow make the dog look even more Teutonic.

All these traits came across the Atlantic. And then came a fork in the road.

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Mason Creek Avastar JH demonstrates the predominance of white coloring that many see as an American innovation within the breed.

A House Divided
History has a way of diverging, and the GWP’s story is no exception. “Deutsch Drahthaar” and “German wirehair” are no longer synonymous, notwithstanding their linguistic equivalency. In the U.S., two organizations have emerged since the 1970s, each taking the breed along a different path. These are the German Wirehaired Pointer Club of America (GWPCA) and the Verein Deutsch Drahthaar Group North America (VDD-GNA).

Incidentally—and contrary to popular belief—”Verein Deutsch Drahthaar” does not mean “true German Wirehair.” Verein is the German word for organization or club. So in yet another instance of irony, “Verein Deutsch Drahthaar” means “German Wirehair Club.”

The GWPCA was founded in 1959, and is the group recognized by the AKC as the official parent club for the breed in the U.S. The VDD-GNA is affiliated with the original German breed club, Verein Deutsch Drahthaar (VDD), and was founded in 1971. I’ll stop short of saying these two organizations are fierce opponents, but they certainly have differing aims. I will do my best to articulate the differences.

First, being AKC-affiliated, the GWPCA is more inclusive of non-hunting uses for the breed, such as agility, bench showing, therapy, personal assistance and general pet ownership. That is not to say GWPCA neglects the hunting heritage of the breed; on the contrary, some extremely ardent hunters find a happy home within this organization.

The GWPCA takes a more typically American approach to a parent club, in which membership is strictly voluntary and anyone is free to raise a litter of AKC registered wirehairs without the club’s review or permission. That means the breed under GWPCA direction is quite free to diverge yet further, as different breeders emphasize different traits.

By contrast, the VDD-GNA is a much more closed system, operating and enforcing its own registry. The VDD-GNA conducts an extensive and multi-stage battery of field tests and physical examinations of all dogs proposed for breeding. And breeding is not allowed if the dog fails the evaluations. In other words, the VDD-GNA reflects the European (and especially German) tendency to choose historical preservation over individual freedom.

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Janet Nahorn with one of her wirehairs and some wild Iowa pheasants.

Two, Not One
As a result of these differences, the VDD-GNA asserts that the GWP has become an altogether different breed from the original Deutsch Drahthaar (DD). Not everyone agrees with that assertion, and a DNA test might render it arguable. However, the notion of a separate breed does have merit.

Today’s DD breeders don’t register their dogs as German wirehaired pointers with the AKC. Breed standards differ somewhat between the two groups, with color being one example. Black coats are not uncommon in the VDD-GNA ranks. Black does make an occasional appearance in GWPs, but it is considered a penalized deviation from the AKC standard color, which is liver. And whereas white is permissible—even desirable—among German wirehair aficionados, Drahthaars are not allowed a patch of white larger than three inches.

Folks, we have two breeds here, not one.

“There’s no question that the Deutsch Drahthaar is the original breed,” admits GWPCA member and German wirehair breeder Janet Nahorn from Oconomowoc, Wis. She has been raising AKC-registered GWPs at her Mason Creek kennel for 28 years. Nahorn acknowledges (and applauds) the American divergence from German origins.

“The original Drahthaars were more aggressive dogs, darkly colored, and they hunted with their noses on the ground,” said Nahorn. “In America we have changed the breed to be less aggressive, lighter in color, and to hunt with their heads up.”

Nahorn feels the American adaptation is a better fit for most American hunters, especially those who primarily hunt upland birds. She is an upland hunter, herself, and not a disciple of the “versatile” breeding philosophy, although her dogs do love water.

Illinois hunter and Drahthaar owner Neal Feazel is the National Inquiries Representative for VDD-GNA. Feazel owned several other breeds before settling on the Drahthaar 25 years ago. He is an official field test and physical conformation judge for VDD-GNA. Feazel has hunted everything from sand grouse to raccoons, from Iowa to Namibia—all with Drahthaars.

He said Drahthaar owners frequently use their dogs for rabbit hunting or blood trailing deer. In an era when upland bird populations are at an all-time low in many areas, many lifelong “bird dog” fans might welcome such an opportunity to own a breed with a wider range of abilities.

But are they aggressive?

“There is some truth to the notion that the original German dogs are very tough and self-confident,” said Feazel. “I would not say they’re aggressive, but they’re not golden retrievers. A Drahthaar will not run and hide under the truck if a cat scratches his nose.”

However, Feazel said no Drahthaar is allowed to breed unless it demonstrates a quality he calls “mental stability” during evaluation. The dog must be able to adjudicate the difference between real threats and harmless situations.

Feazel said, “My dogs will not back down when they encounter something dangerous, but my dogs live in the house 24/7 and I can leave them alone with children.”

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Mason Creek Lady Elektra, an “American” GWP with more traditional coloration.

More Road Forks
Even within the GWPCA, there is not a single, uniform notion of what constitutes an ideal GWP. Granted, a very detailed AKC breed standard does exist. However, there is no restrictive system of evaluation to ensure that only dogs conforming to that standard are allowed to reproduce. I am not stating that as an accusation; it is merely an observation. Many people may in fact choose to believe it’s a good thing, because it opens the door for variety within the breed, in order to suit the varying tastes of different buyers.

Complicating the scene further is the fact that both the Field Dog Stud Book (FDSB) and the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) also have registries for German wirehairs. Their ranks are populated by people with a wide range of preferences, some resembling the old German original, and others resembling the more “Americanized” version. In fact, some dogs (especially those FDSB-registered) may even resemble wide-running English pointers in their hunting style, in order to compete in field trials. That means there are no less than three organizations with which a GWP might be registered.

So how in the world is a potential buyer to make a decision?

Buyer Beware
Your decision is relatively simple if you’ve decided the Drahthaar is the better fit. All DD breeders are judged by the same standard. However, that doesn’t mean all Drahthaars are created equal. It is still vital you talk at-length with breeders, ask questions, get references, and visit the breeder if possible.

You may be in for more homework (and in-person evaluation) if you think the German wirehair might be a better fit for you. And, for the record, I suspect it might indeed be the better fit for many readers of this magazine.

“I like to see a puppy that is calm when I pick it up, and busy but not hyperactive when I put it on the ground,” said Nahorn. She warns potential buyers to stick with breeders who are avid hunters, because AKC hunting test titles do not necessarily equate to hunting prowess in the real world. Although Nahorn has titled dogs in bench shows, she urges hunters to focus first on hunting ability and then on looks.

“A beautiful hunting dog can win a show,” said Nahorn, “but a strictly show dog might not hunt.”

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Mason Creek Mokka Brie JH pins a bird in good cover.

  • Steve from Missouri

    There are certainly many people whio have more background in this breed than I. On the other hand, there is an inherent bias involved, I am a highly experienced dog guy of wide background who contemplated changing to this breed five years ago, and did, Before doing.so, I conducted vast research from scratch, thinking of Wires and Drahts equally. I didn’t care which I got; I just wanted the dog. I obtained a really solid education regarding both types.

    The author of this piece has been buying the sales pitch of the Draht people. Everyone’s got a gimmick and the Drahters (is that a new word?) have theirs.The drahts are the eqivalent of the old houndy shorthairs who first came over.They’d chase a coon or a rabbit or a deer, bay a burglar or point a bird without style and sometimes sort of retrieve. Blue collar lunch-bucket functional jacks-of-all-trades, for the most part. Shorthairs have evolved, at least the better ones, and so have wires. I can’t count the numbers of Drahts I researched whose entire litter had passed the “tests” with marginal bird scores, but who made up for it with good blood trail or rabbit scores. Great.

    Clearly, there are exceptions. I’m in the middle of draht country, and I’ve seen some pretty good ones. Rarely. But they breed for an old-style mediocre norm, and hustle their dogs by comparing the best (or the norm) of their dogs with the worst of wirehairs.

    It’s the same breed, the same as the dumpy old Shorthairs and the better modern purebred Shorthairs are the same breed. But for a person who “does his homework”, he can find a MUCH better dog among wirehairs. If he doesnt, that may be a different story, as the drahters do require Xrays and a stable temperament.
    I hope this response will not result in hordes of crazed drahters surrounding my house with torches and pitchforks, so I’ll decline to state my full name.But facts are facts, though bias causes many to consciously ignore them.

    • Adam Frantz from Great Lakes

      Steve,

      Please tell us more about what you would look for as far as home work on GWP is concerned. I struggled to find much multi generational hard copy record and factual hunting evaluation. I did on the other hand receive a heavily biased sales pitch against buying a DD.

      Mediocre hunting from the DD? JGHV testing regulations are anything but mediocre. 350 meter retrieves on rabbits ducks pheasants fox raccoon to hand all on the same day or hunt… I think you must have been confused and simply made a typo reversing GWP and DD in your comment. Mistakes happen but not from dogs of handlers who train for the hunt and only breed dogs who have met the strenuous consistent standards of VDD-GNA. Btw DK vs shorthair…. I dare you to compare the versitility of a DK to the GSP. Wake up Steve.

      Bottom line is this folks, buy your pup from a breeder who will be able to help you train your dog to hunt your game. Ask for a breeder demonstration on the game of your choice, if you like what you see buy the dog. Take your dog hunting, eat the game you shoot and nice your dogs a place by the fire, chances are you’ll both live longer.

      These breeds are different, know that going in.

    • Tuscarora

      Steve,

      We are still waiting to read your facts. Will they be much longer in coming?

      • Steve from Missouri

        Do your own research. Truths are self-evident to the knowledgeable after sufficient educated research, but there’s no persuading a bigot or those with personal interests in believing what they want to believe. It’s pointless to try. I’m sure you truly believe your own sales pitch. To someone who wants a wirehaired versatile bird dog, though, he can find a much better one if he looks and learns than those hustled by the drahters. The wirehair is one breed where top conformation dogs are also frequently top field trial, hunt test or hunting dogs. Obedience and agilty, too, for that matter,
        Drahts, by the way, are AKC registerable, for those who want to genunely compete their dogs instead of just achieving minimal passing scores in a variety of oldstyle mostly pointless and styleless Eurostuff. There are good drahts and their owners work with them. But they see what they want to see instead of what is. Drahts are wirehairs of 50 years ago. Breeds evolve forward in the hands of genuinely good breeders. There are a lot of fine wirehair breeders with proven accomplishments. A person wanting a top dog should find one and,as has been mentioned, see the dogs work. It isn’t tough.

        • Tuscarora

          Wow, Steve! Ouch! A bigot? You are gonna hurt my feelings! Seems most folks who start labeling and calling names in a discussion are the ones on the short end of it. You can be assured that I’m a doggy racist also.
          I find it interesting that self-evident truths (facts), as you put it, are there for the knowledgable to find, and yet you are unable to list a one. Two paragraphs of propaganda, name calling, and disdain is your response. Do you vote Democrat? Anyway……
          My own hunting interests have always been varied, and that applies to upland and waterfowl hunting also. I grew up with labs and one chesapeake. I know from experience that they are not a natural versatile breed. After completing college 23 years ago an acquaintance sold me my first GWP as THE do all dog. To this day, he is a reputable breeder of GWPs and of great conviction. That first male lived 19 months and died of cancer. The second male from a friend of the breeder friend turned out to be the most aggressive dog that I have ever owned, and was later sold to another field trialler. Were these two males good in the field? Sure! They were great trials dogs. And another lesson was learned that a great trials dog does not necessarily equate to a solid hunting dog.
          This lesson was learned with my third GWP, a female, trained and trialled by breeder number one. At her age of three, we were transferred to Utah, quite possibly the Drahthaar mecca of the USA. Friendships were made, and hunting interests were established, and I ended up hunting for the first time around one of those Drahts. It was another female, and it was ego-bruising. How in the world was this meagerly trained (Eurostuff, or Eurofluff?) Draht showing my girl how it was done over…..everything! Two seasons worth! Damn it!
          She was sold back to her breeder who then used her successfully in his breeding program, and produced some very nice field trialling dogs.
          Yes, I drank the kool-aid. Quite possibly where it comes to GWPs, I was looking at the wrong “lines” when I was trying find a versatile HUNTING dog. I am certain that high performing (hunting) GWP pedigrees do exist. Fortunately, switching to Drahthaars has not put me into that predicament where a specific “line” must be sought out. Consistency and standards have benefits. They were originally and still are bread as a hunting breed. The two male Drahts since have been so easily trained in comparison as to be absurd. Healthy, hardy, tough to fault, and where an aggressive dog is considered to have a breeding fault. No problems. For my hunting and my family, I haven’t found the better breed.
          Style? Bwaaaahaha!!! My daughters don’t do beauty pageants, and my dogs don’t field trial. We hunt!

  • Jeff English

    Interesting and well written article, and I am pleased to see that there is some recognition that these really are (often) very distinct breeds. I got my first DD in 1990, and owned two before switching to the DK. Both
    of my DDs were phenomenal hunting dogs, hunting hard and fast, with head UP unless they were tracking (eg running pheasants). I have to confess that I switched to the DK primarily because I was tired of aggression issues (anything with fur on it was killed and retrieved, which is a desired trait in the DD but can be problematic at times, eg when it is your family cat…. And fighting with the farmer’s dog does not earn you goodwill points). I believe that the VDD/GNA breeders recognized the problem (for some of us anyway), and most of the DDs I have seen in recent years are much less inclined to fight. I know that there are some excellent AKC dogs out there, but the thing that I find appealing about the german registered dogs is that if you buy a DD or a DK, you KNOW that this pup’s parents passed a puppy hunt test, an adult hunting test, they are free of hip dysplasia, they have good dental and physical conformation, and good coat quality…. And that is the MINIMUM requirements to breed these dogs! Many have also passed a two day long hunting test, been certified for blood tracking, etc. AND you can look at their ahnentafel (pedigree) and see what their pedecessors scored on tests for several generations back.

  • http://www.trophytimegundogs.com/ Josh Tucker

    I would tend to agree with the person whose comments are to make sure if you are buying a dog, see it work on the game of your choosing. the breeder should be able to demonstate clearly the dogs capabilities. make sure the dog meets your expectations in performing the basics well.

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