The Bracco Italiano emerged from her crate and was now the center of attention. "Your pooch looks like a cross between a German shorthair and a bloodhound," one of the pheasant hunting party members told John Kavalier, the owner of Nica.
"Yeah, yeah, I get that comment lots of times," Kavalier responded with a smile.
"Maybe there are some features sort of cartoonish in appearance about this breed," admits Dick Propernick, the President of the Bracco Italiano Club of America. "But watch what happens when Nica gets on the ground and goes after pheasants. All the cartoon features disappear."
As soon as the big dog was in cover, she took off like any other popular gun dog, looking for ringnecks. "Anyone expecting a Bracco to poke along at a lumbering pace will be surprised at how fast and effectively this breed can search upland gamebird habitat, find birds, point them, then retrieve them," Propernick added.
And the guests in the group were surprised as Nica quartered in a steady and regular pattern, in a smooth trot characteristic of the Bracco. "This trotting gait is something deliberately bred for in this breed," says Kavalier, "because this type of motion, though powerful, is also energy saving, which means these dogs can hunt longer and harder than other breeds."
"Nica's on point," someone hollered. "Her body is locked up, but there's no intensity in her face," someone whispered. "No offense intended."
"And none taken," Kavalier replied. "There's just too much skin on a Bracco's head for much facial expression to come through. So just read Nica's body language when she's on point and you'll know all you need to."
Kavalier went in to kick a clump of prairie grass where a rooster flushed, and soon dropped in a cloud of feathers. Nica bounded through the grass, picked up the bird €¨and delivered it to her owner with style.
Nica's performance on pheasants is evidence of how well the Italians, for several centuries, have bred these dogs to hunt all kinds of upland gamebirds.
"In the breed, there has been little emphasis on hunting small game animals and no focus on tracking big game animals like you will find with the northern European versatile dogs such as Drahthaars or griffons," Kavalier says. "And there is no emphasis in the Bracco's background or training on retrieving waterfowl."
The Bracco is capable of successfully fetching ducks and geese on land or in water, however. "Nica was the first Bracco to receive a Prize I Utility score in NAVHDA testing where the duck search is the deal-maker or deal-breaker in getting a passing Utility grade," Kavalier says.
The Duck Search
In Italy, the Bracco has been bred for decades, mainly as an upland specialist. But that doesn't mean these dogs won't retrieve waterfowl.
"The standard training methods used for any other versatile hunting breed will produce a versatile Bracco," says Ericka Dennis, who owns, Regina, a 6-year-old Bracco who is also the first of her breed to earn a Versatile Champion (VC) title in NAVHDA.
"(Regina) naturally handles ducks and geese in the fall," said Dennis. "When the temperatures really drop, I put a neoprene vest on her. But I don't keep her in the cold too long because her short coat doesn't provide much heat retention.
"The retrieving instinct in most Braccos is naturally strong, so getting one to fetch a duck or goose on land is easy. And bringing in waterfowl that fall in water is no problem if a Bracco is introduced to swimming early with no high pressure training force."
"As a breed for the first-time gun dog owner, I'd say proceed with caution because, for the inexperienced dog trainer, the Bracco can be a challenge," says Ed Erickson at Autumn Breeze Kennels. "Though most Braccos have lots of natural hunt in them, in many cases they can be slow to mature, occasionally a little soft and sometimes a little stubborn.
"This is why I specialize in Braccos and their cousin, the Spinone Italiano. Both breeds take some special methods to get the most out of them for hunting purposes and for testing in NAVHDA or the Versatile Hunting Dog Federation," Erickson has found.
"Braccos can be a good breed choice for the older hunter who has trained and hunted other gun dogs and is now looking for a kind of dog that will naturally hunt hard and close with lots of stamina and well-focused intensity," says Joe Furrow of Shoe Leather Kennels. Furrow has trained a dozen Braccos, one of which was Kavalier's Nica.
"Once trained, Braccos are good at remembering what they have learned and take very little tune-up to perform from season to season," Furrow adds.
Propernick does not accept the notion of Braccos as late bloomers. "I've treated my Braccos the same as any other breed of gun dog by starting yard work when they are 7 weeks old and introducing them to live birds, gun fire, and field and water by the time they're 4 months," he says. "And my Braccos will all, under one year of age, hunt pheasants, chukars, quail and doves as well as ducks and geese."
"The old style standard training techniques work well on most all Braccos I have owned. I do, however, use an e-collar to back up all lessons in basic obedience and advanced training in hunting," says Ralph Minnetti, a Bracco owner.
"Yes, I know some people object to electric stimulation, but a majority of the complainers I've listened to have never used a remote training tool or even seen one correctly operated.
An e-collar with a beeper/locator is a useful tool for controlling both a dog's learned behavior and impulsive behavior, Minnetti believes. "I use low level stimulation to enforce lessons in basic obedience such as coming in when called or stopping on command.
"Likewise, I use the beeper to find my dog when hunting heavy cover as well as to deliver a message about coming in when out of voice or whistle range. And just as important, the e-collar is essential in discouraging dogs from giving in to impulsive behavior."
"All my Braccos have been a combination of house dogs and outside kennel run dogs," says Mary Stone, who has owned and lived with five Braccos for 20 years. "I've had two to three Braccos in my outside run during the day where I live in Maine. The dogs spend 12 hours in an outside kennel when my husband and I are at our jobs.
There have been very few complaints from the neighbors about barking. At night, however, the young sleep in crates and the old dogs sleep on the floor in our bedroom," Stone says.
"Though hard-charging, tough dogs on hunts for ruffed grouse and woodcock or waterfowl, when in the house, they settle down to be generally calm, well-mannered, good citizens," Stone adds. "Braccos, as protective dogs in the house look like they could scare a prowler or tear up a burglar, but they are really pussycats around most strangers."
Buying a Bracco
"Look for credentials," is the advice given by Nancy Schultze to anyone searching for a Bracco. "Search for quantifiable scores in NAVHDA or the Versatile Hunting Dog Federation because both organizations thoroughly test all the versatile gun dogs for natural ability and utility.
"A Bracco that gets a passing score in either of these tests will have verifiable hunting instincts and practical trainability as a hunter of upland gamebirds and waterfowl. And of course, look for a line of Braccos with a breeding program made up of Braccos you can actually see in a realistic hunting situation."
"We strongly recommend that anyone wanting a well-bred Bracco for hunting purposes and as a house dog, buy a pup from a member of the Bracco Italiano Club of American because this is the only organization that has a standard code of ethics that supports a responsible breeding program," say Mike and Peggy Casper, founding members of the BICA.
"There are breeders out there who produce puppies for a commercial market that is money-oriented, not hunting- or quality-oriented," the Caspers warn.
"In this country, we need more Bracco owners who will hunt these dogs €¨as a way to improve and maintain what these dogs can do. The Bracco gene pool in North America needs to grow as a way to produce more and better gun dogs," say Kavalier and Dick.
"Though there are some good lines of Braccos in this country, we still need to look to Italy and other European countries for fresh blood to include in our own breeding programs. Importing Braccos can be relatively complicated and somewhat complex and expensive, but the results, so far, have been good," both men feel.
At this time, the best source for the best-bred Braccos is centered around dogs from the Bracco Italiano Club of America, according to Dennis, a long-time club member. "I recommend Club dogs that have been tested in NAVHDA and the VHDF or in some other hunt-testing venue," Dennis adds.