“What a gorgeous dog,” one of the hunting party observed as the 90-pound, three-year-old male Gordon setter followed a German shorthair through the corn stubble up to a clump of foxtail. The shorthair slammed into a point on what had to be a big old rooster pheasant. The handsome Gordon, meanwhile, with its head and tail held high and its coat glowing in the October sun, ran right past the shorthair and rousted a pair of ringnecks that two shotgun blasts brought to the ground.
“Won’t point ‘em and won’t pick ‘em up, either,” someone muttered when the big Gordon refused to retrieve one of the dead pheasants.
“Was that a Gordon setter?” someone in the crowd asked as the 35-pound black and tan female Gordon went rocketing across the field, followed by two judges on fast-moving horses. The dog’s handler at first trotted on foot but soon slowed to a quick walk in the general direction of the canine and equines as they disappeared from sight in the open rolling pasture and toward some distant treelines.
“Probably would be hard to hunt pheasants or wood grouse or prairie grouse with that Gordon,” someone else in the crowd at the walking trial said as the dog’s handler went over a hill looking for the wide-ranging, big-running dog that he hoped would be on point somewhere with the mounted judges watching.
Neither of these pictures of the Gordon setter makes the breed seem very promising as a gun dog for producing or retrieving wild game birds. But each of these pictures illustrates the breed at its extremes: the oversized, plodding show dog more along for a walk than for a hunt, contrasted to the lightweight speedster bred to run far and wide and more intent on covering lots of ground than finding game in the nearby cover.
Neither dog may easily become a useful bird dog. Between these extremes, however, there are some traditional gun dogs that might be more difficult to find but are out there for those hunters who would like to find them.
FIELD TRIAL GORDONS
Though Becky and Dan Voss, owners of Wyndancer Kennels, regularly run their Gordon setters in national field trials, their main reason for competing in these contests is to prove their dogs’ basic hunting abilities and to keep them in shape for the seasons on pheasants, ruffed grouse, prairie grouse, woodcock and quail. “Our dogs do well in trials, but we are often frustrated by the judges’ emphasis on style over substance,” Becky says.
“In one recent event, one of our Gordons had seven finds on quail versus other dogs that only pointed a couple of birds,” Becky recalls. “Despite what we thought was a winning performance, our Gordon came in fourth. The reason for the lower placement was the judges’ opinion that our dog hunted too much and didn’t run enough. And, in addition, he didn’t have a steady 12 o’clock tail.”
Despite this occasional disappointment, Becky still believes that field trials are a good way to determine a Gordon setter’s hunting potential if anyone looking for a hunting dog understands that judges may have different opinions on the subject.
The Vosses use their line of Gordon setters to produce a litter or two each year; most often the pups are pre-sold before they are born. “I can direct people looking for Gordon pups to other breeders who I personally know usually have litters out of lines similar to ours and consistently produce dependable gun dogs,” Becky adds.
AKC HUNT TESTS
As a full-time professional dog trainer for 30 years, Jim Keller derives much of his income from training American Kennel Club show dogs to earn AKC Hunt Test titles. “Many of my clients bring me hunting dogs that have done well in the show ring but need some credentials in Hunt Tests in order to have a better shot at becoming a Dual Champion,” Keller explains.
Some Hunt Test credentials are promising, Keller feels, because a dog with a couple legs toward a Junior or Senior Hunter title means this dog is trainable with enough bird sense to find and point a pen-raised bobwhite quail. But the best evidence of any hunting breed’s real skill comes with the Master Hunter title, in Keller’s opinion.
“In my experience, any Master Hunter Gordon or Irish or English setter will do a good job of finding and pointing any species of pen-raised gamebird,” Keller says.
“The final exam for any AKC Master Hunter, however, is the dog’s ability to find and point wild birds. I wouldn’t breed a Master Hunter until I saw the dog successfully perform on wild pheasants, grouse or quail,” Keller adds. “And this applies to all breeds of setters, Gordons included.”
For Al Berg, the Gordon setter is the go-to breed of gun dog for upland gamebird hunting competition. Since the 1990s, Berg has used his Gordons to compete in National Shoot to Retrieve events and in a variety of other pheasant hunting contests.
“In almost all these contests, I’m the only one, or among the few, with a Gordon. Most other contestants will have German shorthairs or English pointers with lots of bird-finding power that usually puts them in first place,” Berg admits. “So when my Gordons place or show, I feel that we’ve accomplished something pretty significant, given the dogs we run against.”
“Hogan, our three-year-old male Gordon, is a long-legged 60-pounder who can be a fairly big runner when cruising through the woods looking for ruffed grouse and woodcock. But he naturally works closer when we’re in the confined areas of a 10-acre field used for a hunting contest,” Berg continues.
“Yes, Hogan will fetch anything shot for him because retrieving is a big part of doing well in any hunting contest. And though Hogan was a natural retriever from the start, I used an ear-pinch training method to reinforce his desire to pick up any gamebirds.”
Hogan, as with Berg’s other Gordons, lives in the house most of the time but will stay in an outside kennel when necessary. “In the house, he is calm and quiet and only gets excited when he sees me get out my shotgun when we’re ready for a hunting trip,” Berg says.
Though Berg has an occasional litter of Gordon puppies, he prefers to use Hogan as a stud dog available for selective breeding. “For anyone interested in seeing Hogan at work, we can show him pointing and retrieving pheasants, quail or chukars on our hunting preserve,” Berg adds. Call Rocky Bay Kennel & Hunt Club at (320) 629-1094.
NAVHDA AS A SOURCE
When Jan Wiseley went looking for a gun dog to hunt upland gamebirds and waterfowl, she wanted a pointing breed with strong drive, a good nose and a cooperative temperament. She also wanted a breed that was a naturally capable retriever willing to track wounded birds and retrieve dead game on land and water. That Wiseley chose the Gordon setter was a surprise for herself and her friends.
“I was attracted by the noble and dignified stature of the Gordon, which may not seem the best reason for picking this breed as a versatile gun dog. But when I saw these setters in the field hunting hard and up close for pheasants, ruffed grouse and quail, I knew this was the breed for me,” Wiseley now says.
“I found a line of Gordons from Meadowlands Kennels in Michigan. These dogs were described as old-fashioned Gordons with lots of bird sense, intelligence and good looks, along with a natural love for working in water,” Wiseley recalls. “I picked Abbie out of a litter because even as a pup she showed interest in feathers, chasing live pigeons and coming in when called.
“On walks in the field, she hunted all the time but stayed in close and checked in to see where I was. And she was crazy about water, jumping in to swim at every pond or stream we came to.”
To make a long story shorter, Wiseley joined the Finger Lakes North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) Chapter for general training help. There she met two chapter members, Al Burkhart and Joe Wolak, who immediately saw in Abbie the talent to do well in the NAVHDA Utility Test. “Three tries were necessary before Abbie got a Prize I score,” Wiseley admits, “but most of the problems in passing were my fault, not Abbie’s.”
“There are not many Gordon setters in NAVHDA, probably because not many Gordon owners see the potential for this breed to do well there,” Wiseley says. “But the Gordons that show up there tend to come from lines with lots of versatility as hunting dogs for all the varieties of gamebirds.”
The first Gordon setter owned by Don and Cheryl Sanderson was Frankie, an 80-pound-male they bought as a 10-month-old pup 25 years ago “because we fell in love with his gorgeous coat and sunny temperament,” Cheryl recalls. “After sending Frankie to a local professional trainer for two months, we took him on a five-day pheasant hunt in North Dakota.
“Despite seeing dozens of ringnecks, he pointed a total of three birds, two of which were meadowlarks, and one young rooster. By the end of the first day, Frankie was real tired, and by the end of the second day he was too pooped to hunt anymore,” Sanderson remembers.
As much as the Sandersons liked their first Gordon, they could see that he probably was from a breeding program designed to produce show dogs rather than hunting dogs. “Though his nose was OK, his prey drive was minimal and his stamina in the field seemed pretty weak because he was so big,” Don concluded after Frankie died at nine years of age.
“Our second Gordon was Millie, who came from a breeding program advertised as producing hunting dogs with lots of birdiness, brains and good looks,” Cheryl says. Millie weighed about 40 pounds and she “ran big,” often putting her out of sight when hunting pheasants on the open prairie.
“Though her nose was good and she loved to point, keeping track of her and finding her in the field was often a problem. Being wound up pretty tight also made her a nervously over-active house dog,” Don adds.
“Millie was not interested in retrieving, though if she saw a shot bird hit the ground, she would go and stand next to it until one of us picked it up,” Don remembers. “Millie’s breeder said that some of the dogs in his line of Gordons were natural retrievers and, if they weren’t, the owner of a non-fetching dog just had to live with that.”
The two Gordon setters the Sandersons now have are the result of a lot of research to find a line of gun dogs that balance the breed’s traditional hunting abilities with its conformation.
“We looked at pups out of field trial and hunt test stock as well as dogs that were advertised as mainly hunters. Lady, our six-year-old female, came out of parents with field trial and AKC hunt tests in their pedigrees,” Don notes. “She weighs about 50 pounds, has a great nose, loves all kinds of gamebirds and naturally quarters in an efficient pattern, sometimes a little beyond shotgun range when hunting pheasants or quail.”
“Mac, a two-year-old male out of hunting parents, is about 60 pounds, with a cooperative attitude that helps him to hunt close to the shotgun. His stamina is exceptional whether working in hot or cold weather. And he loves to swim and has from the beginning,” Cheryl says.
Both dogs are natural pointers with a real passion for finding anything with feathers, the Sandersons agree. And though neither dog seemed eager to consistently retrieve, both have been through a professional force-fetch program so each will retrieve all kinds of gamebirds, including ducks and geese on land and in water.
Gordon setters certainly are available as gun dogs. Finding a line of Gordons mainly bred for hunting upland gamebirds and waterfowl, however, will require some research into breeding programs that emphasize proving hunting capabilities in AKC and NAVHDA hunting tests, as well as field trials and hunting competition.
Whether buying a Gordon pup, a started dog or a finished dog, credentials from these sources can be valuable guidelines in locating a good gun dog that will hunt all species of gamebird, from pheasants and grouse to ducks and geese.