August 29, 2016
The best dog I ever owned was a Brittany. Now, I better qualify that. Powder wasn't my hardest running dog, and was nowhere near the most stylish. But she went out day after day for almost 13 seasons, finding birds in a no-nonsense, workmanlike manner. I haven't owned another like her.
She was large for the breed, 44 pounds in her prime, and I lost count of the number of times she found coveys of Huns and ruffed and blue grouse in places other dogs had already worked. She'd point them, hold, and, if I did my job, retrieve to hand. Even when the infirmities of age hindered her range and speed, she found birds. She had the natural attributes I've grown to love - quickness and style - in an upland hunter.
It comes down to the learning curve. Most dogs peak in their abilities at around four or five years old. But some dogs, and Powder was certainly one of them, just keep getting better. Every year, they get a little more savvy about where the birds live and how to handle them. At 10, a dog like that may be half as active as she was at five, but still able to find as many or more birds than she did in her prime.
Those gifted individuals can occur within any breed, of course, and they do. But when I take an informal headcount of the "best" dogs owned by my friends, a lot of them do seem to be Brittanys.
What you will probably get, should you decide to buy a Brittany pup, is a precocious little dog who is a quick study, eager to hunt, and moderately close ranging. These days, there are Brittanys who are bred to run to the ends of the earth, but I fail to see the rationale for this. Nor do I feel a big-running dog is necessary, even if you hunt prairie birds.
A 200-yard dog - and most Brittanys hunt well within that range - will find birds no matter how open the country. Powder spent most of her life hunting Huns, which live in as pure a distillation of the big wide open as you could ever hope to see. At the same time, I owned and hunted over plenty of big-running setters and pointers, and as often as not, at the end of the day, my moderate-range Brit was the high point dog.
Of course, no breed is perfect, and Brittanys have their quirks. They're typically not strong retrievers, but to be fair, most pointing breeds aren't. Nor are they particularly stylish on point. A good friend of mine and a notorious Anglophile (English setters or death!) claims he doesn't like Brittanys because he can never tell when they're on point.
I hate to admit it, but with some Brits that's a valid criticism. A typical Brittany point isn't a dazzling, ballet-like feat that arrests your attention; rather, you notice your dog has simply stopped moving.
But perhaps their strongest trait is their intelligence, and that asset can work both for and against you. Tana Kradolpher, who breeds some of the best Brittanys in Montana and whose dogs I've trained and hunted over for 20 years, agrees. In fact, she says, that very intelligence can, at times, be a bit much.
"That super smart, manipulative sideâ€¦you've gotta know how to deal with that or you're going to have problems," she says. "When you go to put a little pressure on them if, say, you're teaching them to do something like the heel command, they might throw a fit. They don't want to do it; they roll up into a little ball and act like they're dying.
"But it's an act. If you haven't trained a lot of dogs, you'll buy into the act and you'll back off. But the thing to do is to ignore the act, and you'll get through that."
I've trained about a half-dozen of Kradolpher's dogs, as well as a half-dozen or so from other breeders, and her advice is spot on. Brittanys have been among the biggest drama queens I've had in my kennel. But once you get their theatrical little heads right, they are quick on the uptake, eager to please and excited about their lessons.
The breed has apparently existed in Europe for centuries but was first recognized as such in France in 1907, when a dog named "Boy" was registered. The standards for the breed were outlined that same year, and the breed was approved in the U.S. by the AKC in 1934.
Rumor has it, they were the preferred breed of poachers in France, and anyone who has owned a Brittany and had to deal with their occasionally mischievous, thieving little hearts can understand why. But the same little dog that steals the steak from your dinner plate is also the dog that will crawl into your lap at the end of the day, begging for attention, perfectly happy to share his warm spot by the fire.
My very first bird dog was a Brittany. My father bought me the dog after watching some friends and their Brits comb a Nebraska river bottom for quail and pheasants. I remember him telling me that they "stood on top of the hill and watched the dogs work, and then when they went on point, we walked down and put the birds up."
Or something like that. Although I may not remember the exact words, I vividly recall the impression that conversation made on me for it was exactly what I saw myself doing, and right around my 12th-year dad bought me a puppy. I've hunted over a number of Brittanys, both American and French, since that first dog 45 years ago. Almost all were at least acceptable hunters, even if they weren't well trained.
All other things being equal, how effectively any dog of any breed hunts a particular gamebird comes down to experience. A dog that hunts pheasants 60 days a year is going to be a better, more productive pheasant-finder than one who hunts six days a year. If practice doesn't make perfect, it certainly moves toward that objective, and it's no different for bird dogs than it is for humans.
My previous Brittany, a tiny little dog named Fancy, hunted almost exclusively Hungarian partridge, sharptailed grouse and ruffed grouse in Montana. She excelled at all of them, even though, by the standards of training I bring my dogs to today, she was marginally trained.
Powder also cut her teeth on Huns and sharptails, but she benefited from my itinerant lifestyle and hunted quail, ruffed grouse, Huns, sharptails, blue grouse, woodcock and chukars in several different states. Surprisingly, although she pointed far more prairie birds than anything else, she was the best on ruffed grouse. She just seemed to have a sixth sense for handling what I consider to be the toughest-handling bird of them all.
On several occasions, I followed her for over a hundred yards while she carefully worked out the trail of a running grouse as it ran helter-skelter through a patch of Wisconsin popples. Killing a bird that your dog has spent 10 heart-pounding minutes tracking is an experience every bird hunter should have at least once.
Brittanys are active dogs, and if they don't tear up the landscape in the same way some setters and pointers do, that doesn't mean they're lazy. On the other hand, feed them too much, which seems to be a common problem among Brit owners, and they'll end up looking like orange and white footballs (or liver and white footballs, a striking color variation). But when they're well-conditioned and trim, they're pure fun to watch and can hunt at a brisk pace for two or three hours at a time. Still, Brits emphasize thoroughness over ground coverage, and that may be why they do well in close cover.
When Powder was 12 and very nearly at the end of her life, I took her on a Mearns quail hunt in southern Arizona. I paired her with one of my setters, figuring that since Powder could barely hunt 30 yards from the gun, the setter would find the birds and Powder would back. I'd have been fine with that.
Instead, a half-hour later, Powder stuck a covey at the base of an oak-covered hillside, and when I walked in, they flushed up and over her head and into the trees. My setter, meanwhile, had already blown past and completely missed them. I whistled her back and sent both of them up the hill, and again, Powder pointed a single that my setter missed.
It was the last bird I ever shot over her. She's now buried in the grove of aspens in my front yard, along with my other dogs, loved and gone.
Wherever she is, I'll bet she's still finding birds.