October 11, 2013
"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.
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.
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."
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?
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."