One gun dog that points like an English setter and retrieves like a Labrador? A tough dog that in the morning swims a mile in wind-swept freezing water after a wing-tipped Canada honker, then in the afternoon, carefully points a bobwhite and delicately fetches the bird after you flush and shoot it? An intelligent canine easy to train and handle, quick to mature into a useful hunter, and eager to be your family’s best friend in your home? Is the Deutsch Drahthaar this ‘one gun dog’?
“It is–and it isn’t,” says Jack Wilson, a Deutsch Drahthaar breeder, trainer, and hunter from Watertown, South Dakota. Wilson’s ambivalent response to this “one dog” question is the consequence of living with, producing, and hunting over dozens of Drahthaars on a full-time basis for nearly a decade.
“The idea of one gun dog perfect for hunting all kinds of gamebirds in all types of conditions just isn’t very realistic,” Wilson says. “Though this ‘ideal’ dog is a goal most breeders of versatile gun dogs strive for, like everyone else, we still haven’t totally succeeded. . .but we’re getting closer.”
Despite the fact that the Drahthaar is the number one sporting dog in Europe, the Verein Deutsch Drahthaar (translated “true German wirehair”) hasn’t become all that popular in North America, Wilson points out. “One reason may be that some of these gun dogs have gotten the reputation of being too high-powered, too hard to train, and too hard to control for many hunting situations,” he says. “Likewise, a few individual dogs sometimes show signs of sharpness toward people and other dogs, ‘biters and fighters,’ in other words, that give the whole breed a bad name. In addition, some lines of Drahthaars are known to have a predilection for hunting furred predators and vermin, and in the process, ruining hunts for upland gamebirds or waterfowl.
“The Deutsch Drahthaar breeding programs some fellow breeders and I are developing is designed to produce a gun dog more suitable for hunting upland gamebirds and waterfowl without losing the Drahthaars famous overall aggressive and hard hunting instinct,” Wilson continues. “By using only tested dogs from the German-based Verein Deutsch Drahthaar (VDD) breeding organization, our goal is to produce a ‘line’ of Deutsch Drahthaars (DDs) with stronger bird hunting qualities, less tendency to pursue predators and vermin, and a greater degree of cooperation, biddability, and stability in temperament. In this process, we also want to emphasize a greater uniformity in coat and conformation.
“We think this line of DDs can be created by carefully selecting dogs from the existing gene pools in the VDD,” Wilson says. “And we’ve studied pedigrees and test scores of Drahthaars in Europe and North America to find breeding stock necessary to make this happen. All of this has taken a lot of time, effort, money, and the cooperation of many breeders in this country and Germany. . .the gun dogs produced so far are still works in progress, but we’re steadily getting closer to a Deutsch Drahthaar designed for the kind of hunting most of us do in North America.
“Some breeders in the VDD organization are worried that trying to put more ‘gamebird dog’ into a line of Drahthaars will compromise other qualities that distinguish them from other versatile breeds,” Wilson notes. “But there’s no evidence that this will happen as long as we stay within the parameters established and sanctioned by VDD itself.
“Some of the oldest, most well-established and respected VDD breeders in Germany have recognized that establishing a gentler and less antagonistic Drahthaar is a good idea. It will help to alleviate some of the perceived problems with the image of DDs in general. We think our breeding program will produce DDs with a lower degree of ‘sharpness’ toward other dogs and people. Dogs will be less inclined to pursue predators and more inclined to search for, point, and retrieve upland gamebirds and to fetch up waterfowl.
“Our plan is based on breeding the ‘best of the best’ with ‘best’ being defined as Drahthaars that have solid scores in the VDD testing system,” Wilson explains. “We’re emphasizing dogs whose tests average out as ‘even’ rather than only picking Drahthaars with a combination of high numbers in the various levels of the testing procedures. For example, mating two high-scoring ‘super-dogs’ won’t necessarily result in ‘super-offspring.’ In fact, without looking at the whole genetic package and knowing how to blend the pedigrees, the final product sometimes can be more monster than magic.
“The idea of all this is to produce a final result with a strong but stable genetic base. To do this we’re using some successful methods that other gun dog breeders have proven to produce field trial champion Labradors, high scoring AKC Hunt Test pointers or Prize I gun dogs in the North American Versatile Hunting Dog breeding programs,” Wilson says.
“After many years of studying pedigrees based on VDD breeding and testing standards, going to Germany to research and purchase dogs from European kennels, locating well-qualified Drahthaars in North America, and hunting with the dogs we’ve brought together, we’re on our way to building a kind of Deutsch Drahthaar that we think should be exceptional,” Wilson believes.
“Though some aspects of canine genetics can be approached and shaped from scientific and mathematical perspectives, an actual breeding program still involves a series of experiments that include a lot of variables. For example, you can fairly easily determine shape, size, or coat length and color in most dog breeds. But developing and controlling a certain type of stable temperament in any canine is more uncertain and difficult because the definition of temperament is more abstract and subjective and often a matter of opinion,” Wilson says.
“Though temperament can be evaluated to some significant degree in the VDD formal testing system, the final judgment on temperament usually comes from living with and hunting over individual dogs. On
e person looking at one dog in a test can make some worthwhile generalizations about temperament. But the person who every day has the dog in the house with her and sees how the dog interacts with the housecat, the kids, the visiting relatives and friends can tell you more about the dog’s temperament than anyone.
“Likewise, hunting with a dog and watching how it reacts to other dogs in the field, how it deals with predators and vermin, and how it rates in biddability, cooperation, and obedience–all this will tell more about temperament than anything,” Wilson adds.
“In any dog breeding program, admitting wrong directions, bad luck, mistakes, and failure in achieving certain goals is difficult. Putting time and effort into breeding for specific objectives then finding out that you meet some and miss others can be heartbreaking. And backing up and redeveloping an entire breeding program because it is not working can take a lot of backbone.
“In our own experience, we spent several years building a line of DDs that produced good scores in VDD tests and performed just great on gamebird hunts. . .but our last litter included three pups that eventually showed hip dysplasia problems bad enough to indicate a real problem in the whole line. Though hard to do, we identified the source of the hip problem, eliminated some otherwise great hunting dogs from our breeding program, and added some new blood to our line. All of this took time, effort, and money, but in the end, it will be worth it,” Wilson says.
“Buying a well-bred Verein Deutsch Drahthaar isn’t easy–and it shouldn’t be,” Wilson feels. “Because there is so much information available about DDs bred within VDD testing guidelines, judging the potential of a puppy or an adult dog will require a lot of research work on the part of the buyer looking for a new pup or a started or finished older dog.”
Would he recommend a Deutsch Drahthaar as a ‘first dog’ for someone just getting into upland gamebird and waterfowl hunting? Or would this breed of dog be a good choice for some older hunter looking for what might be a ‘last dog’?
“Any honest answer to these questions depends primarily on the personality, physical abilities, experiences, and expectations of the prospective DD owner,” Wilson says. “Someone new to hunting, who is interested in learning about Drahthaars and has the expertise, time and energy to train one, could do well with this breed if he or she conducts a careful search for a ‘line’ that is fairly laid-back and easy-going.
“Likewise, an older hunter, with a lifetime of experience with gun dogs, might look for a ‘finished’ older DD that has been proven as a cooperative, biddable and well-trained obedient individual suited for the needs of someone 60-plus years old,” Wilson adds. “The important part of getting a DD is to find a line of ‘tested and proven’ dogs most compatible with the personality, lifestyle, and hunting habits of the prospective owner. Matching the owner’s personality with the dog’s personality is very important.
“In some respects, the Deutsch Drahthaar may not be for everyone because as a breed these are high-powered and very spirited gun dogs. One of my hunting partners compares them to a one-ton truck with a big engine and four-wheel drive–this probably isn’t the best vehicle for Grandma, and it may not be the best choice for a teenager with no driving experience, either. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with the truck; it’s just not suited for some drivers. The same logic holds true for Drahthaars and some people.”
Is professional help needed to train a Deutsch Drahthaar as a gun dog?
“That depends on your previous experience in owning and using any sort of hunting dog,” Wilson says. “If you’ve already had some breed of versati
le hunting dog, training a Deutsch Drahthaar should be a familiar process. If you’re new to these kinds of dogs, though, as with any breed of high-powered gun dog, going to a professional trainer with experience in training versatile breeds might be a good idea.
“In addition to perhaps getting professional help, a person with a new Drahthaar really should join the Verein Deutsch Drahthaar/Group North America organization. As a member, you’ll be in touch with other VDD members and many of them are willing to help others train their dogs.
“VDD/GNA, of course, provides the levels of testing for those wanting to use their DDs in the organization’s breeding program. Even those who don’t want to use their dogs for breeding purposes will find that training for and passing these tests is a good way to develop an all around gamebird hunting dog.
“Deutsch Drahthaars are also usually well-suited to the goals and training methods represented by the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association,” Wilson adds. “Most DD owners should feel right at home training and testing these dogs according to NAVHDA guidelines. . .a Drahthaar owner, especially a person with a first gun dog, would be able to tap the experience of other NAVHDA members when training a dog for tests in particular and hunting in general.
“I’ve occasionally been asked if we are trying to ‘Americanize’ the Deutsch Drahthaar. The answer is no. We are developing a kind of DD that can be more useful to the American gamebird hunter. We’re doing this by breeding dogs within the existing gene pool of VDD as it exists in Europe and North America. And we’re creating a different kind of DD without losing the traditional power and vitality of the original gun dog.
“We’re trying to breed DDs that will vigorously search for, point, and fetch up all kinds of upland gamebirds and that will retrieve waterfowl with great enthusiasm and proficiency,” Wilson concludes. “And, at the same time–and this is the hard part–we want a type of hunting dog that is laid-back, cooperative, and easier to control with a stable disposition.
“Our breeding programs won’t please everyone in VDD in North America or Europe. But we do sense a similar movement among some major Deutsch Drahthaar breeders in Germany. Max Steinberger of vom Donaueck Kennels, one of the oldest and most prestigious kennels in Germany, assured me that these same objectives have been put into his breeding program and with several others. And when a breeder who has been developing a line of Drahthaars since 1936 says this, it has to be a serious and needed effort.”
|The VDD/GNA Organization and Testing Program|
| The Verein Deutsch Drahthaar (VDD), a German-based breed club begun in 1902, is an organization dedicated to improving the Deutsch-Drahthaar through a series of required tests and examinations conducted by VDD judges. A “breed warden” must evaluate and approve the results of these tests and exams before a “certified” VDD breeding can occur. The VDD/GNA refers to the Verein Deutsch Drahthaar/Group North America, the official and recognized branch of the original German club, which adheres to the breed guidelines established in Germany.
The VDD testing system is similar to that of the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA). The VJP and HZP tests are the VDD’s equivalent to the NAVHDA Natural Ability Test in which pups up to 15 months of age are evaluated by qualified judges in simulated hunting situations. In the VJP, usually conducted in the spring, pups are scored for nose, tracking, search, point, and cooperation, as well as examined for physical deficiencies or faults in temperament.
In the HZP, or fall breed test, all the VJP categories are included as well as tests for “desire, search behind the duck, blind retrieve of a duck, and retrieve of game placed by a drag track,” as well as manner of retrieve and obedience.
The VGP is a “utility test,” a two-day event that has two dozen different scoring areas in many respects similar to the HZP. Included are a fox retrieve, a 400-meter blood track, steadiness to wing and shot, as well as land and water hunting exercises. In this test, the dog and handler are judged as a team. The VGP show the dog’s degree of trainability, temperament, and mental toughness.