October 31, 2011
Ralph Fedele told me his first choice was a whippet, not a Portuguese pointer. He'd been a bird hunter in a previous life, before children. He now wanted a small dog with short hair--less mess in the house--that was good with kids. Then his wife got into the act.
"My wife said, 'Look at this dog I just happened to come across on the internet,'" Fedele recalls. "I looked at the pictures and said, 'That's the dog. Let's call this guy and get that dog.' My wife, just completely coincidentally, is Portuguese, although she had no prior experience with the dogs."
And so, in a chain of ironic twists, a Portuguese woman who had never seen a Portuguese pointer and a former bird hunter who wasn't looking for a bird dog became the new owners of a Portuguese pointer, which looks like a cross between a boxer and a yellow Lab. This dog would renew Fedele's passion for a sport he thought he'd left behind.
Portuguese pointers number something like 200 animals in this country, rare by any definition of the word. How Fedele came to own one of these handsome creatures jibes with my own general sense that many of those drawn to the exotic hunting breeds, no matter how common they are in their home countries, are highly enthusiastic, but not always highly experienced bird hunters and dog trainers. Fedele, to his credit, is honest about his inexperience as a dog trainer. He lives in New Jersey, a state where most of his hunting is limited to publicly stocked state wildlife areas. But you sure can't fault the guy for not loving his dog.
"She has proven to be fantastic with the kids," he told me, and I could almost see him beaming over the phone line.
According to Fedele, his dog's short hair is easy to clean, and she's small--Portuguese pointers are much more compact at 40 to 45 pounds than their muscular builds would lead you to believe. She's also almost ferociously affectionate. But how would she hunt? At first, Fedele really didn't know. Then the dog, still just a puppy, gave him a clue.
"I got her the earliest I could get her; I guess she was eight weeks old," he says. "She was in our yard, and she started pointing--sight pointing--birds. I said to my wife, 'You know, I didn't intend to hunt her, but she seems to have some natural talent. I think I'll train her a little bit and take her out and see what happens.'"
What happened, Fedele recalls, was that his little Portuguese puppy took the reins and ran with them. He liked what he saw, even when compared to the German shorthaired pointers he had originally trained with through an NAVHDA group.
"They're a bit softer than Germans and don't take well to harsh correction," he says. "They hunt a lot closer than the Germans, I think€¦now she'll go out to about 35 or 40 yards.
"Personally, I like that. I don't know why you'd need a dog to go much further than that. The German shorthaired pointer guys [his friends in NAVHDA] say she needs to go further, but why?"
Some can undoubtedly make a case for a bigger-running dog, but the fact is, given the birds Fedele hunts--planted pheasants in presumably thick Eastern cover--a close-ranging dog is fine. In fact, as I've written many times before, close-ranging dogs are what the majority of American bird hunters want.
My opinion (and a largely subjective one, I'll admit) is that most European breeds are bred more for versatility and close range than speed and style. The Portuguese pointer seems to fit that characterization, although it is hardly a newcomer in Portugal, where, according to one website, they've been bred on the west side of the Iberian Peninsula since the 10th century.
Woodcuts show a dog that hasn't changed much in hundreds of years: close to the ground, stocky and muscular, with a prominent blaze on the chest accenting a golden yellow to dark yellow coat. Tails are generally docked, although a growing European trend is to leave them long. Friendliness and biddability are hallmarks of the breed.
That may well be. Like almost everyone else who is reading this article, I've yet to see a Portuguese pointer in action, so I can't judge for myself. But the enthusiasm Fedele displays for his dog, Hunter (his kids, he groans, wanted to name her Tinkerbell), is real.
As is that of Brian Johnston, one of a handful of Portuguese pointer breeders in the country. Johnston lives in the heart of the great American grasslands, south of Bismarck, N.D., hard by the Missouri River. For a serious upland bird and waterfowl hunter, it would be tough to find a better location anywhere in the U.S.
Johnston is no newcomer to bird hunting. He grew up hunting over his family's shorthairs, then switched gears and spent years hunting big game. When he came back to bird dogs, he found himself teaching business courses at the University of Mary in Bismarck and the owner of 80 acres of pheasant habitat bordering the Missouri, one of the largest migratory corridors for waterfowl in North America. And not a dog to his name.
"We had some good shorthairs back in Utah, but we had some knotheads, too," he recalls of his childhood. "When I got back into bird hunting about 10 years ago, I decided I wanted to get some dogs that actually wanted to hunt with me, you know? I'm 53 now, and I don't run, I walk everywhere I go, and I didn't want to chase shorthairs.
Johnston ended up importing some griffons from France, a breed he still owns and enjoys hunting over. But something was missing.
"I came across this breed called the Portuguese pointer and saw some pictures of them, and everything I read just fascinated me," he said. "Could a dog really be that good, that loyal and so into you?"
As he'd done with the griffons, Johnston found out the answers to his questions by jumping into the Portuguese pointer arena with both feet. He e-mailed breeders in Portugal, followed up with calls and almost quit several times before hitting pay dirt.
"I was finally able to locate some breeders, then I sent a pile of money over to Portugal," he says, "hoping to heck something came back here. They didn't speak English and I didn't speak Portuguese. What are you gonna do?"
Ultimately, he imported a total of six dogs and found himself running in scarce company as a newly minted American breeder of Portuguese pointers. Although Fedele's and Johnston's past experiences with bird dogs were considerably different, I was struck by how similar their praise of the animals was. Both men possessed an almost palpable enthusiasm. Like Fedele, Johnston says his dogs are very close rangers--40 to 60 yards. His Portuguese pointers, he says, have also made him a better trainer.
"The first ones I got were about four or five months old, and I don't know if they'd been socialized," he remembers. "You'd go to train them and they'd just shut down on me--lie down on their back and throw their feet up in the air. I thought, there's just absolutely no way that I'm going to be able to train these dogs in the way I'm used to.
"I just walked them every day. In time, all of them were out in front of me, working it, and we'd always be into birds. I could tell that they were just horribly birdy right out of the box," he says.
A video he posted says it all.
It shows a whole passel of Portuguese pointer puppies chasing a wing that Johnston is flicking in front of them through a shallow stretch of the Missouri River. The group looks like a crowd of water-crazy Lab puppies chasing a bumper. Those dogs, Johnston told me, had never been exposed to water before that day. Johnston admits the dogs "couldn't swim worth a darn," and it's true. They pawed at the water like puppies often do. But their enthusiasm for the game was striking, and all the more so given their young age.
Oddly enough, Johnston says that if the dogs have a weakness, it's retrieving.
"The retrieving thing€¦some of them retrieve naturally very good, the desire's there," he says. "But I've seen a few of them balk at picking birds up. So if they have a weakness--and it's hard to find one--I'd say maybe in the retrieving. But I think a lot of them retrieve pretty good."
Fedele's take on his dog's retrieving ability is the same: pretty good. Of course, before you can get a retrieve, you have to kill the bird.
He remembers one of last season's hunts. He and a friend had been hunting without success all day, but at the truck, Fedele wanted to give it one last shot.
"Really quickly, the dog got alerted to something," he says. "Sure enough, she had located a couple roosters. We weren't really prepared--we had just walked out--and she got on them pretty quickly.
"We didn't react all that fast," Fedele says a bit sheepishly, "and the roosters moved on her. But she moved with them without spooking them, which I thought was impressive. She reset herself and pointed them again, and she did that a couple times.
"So when we approached, the first pheasant took off, and my hunting partner fired at it twice, and I gotta tell you, I don't know how the heck he missed it," Fedele laughs. "So anyway, he misses the damn bird. Shortly thereafter, the second one took off and, God bless it, it came toward my direction and I shot it. It went right down and the dog went right over and got it.
"But then, his bird started strolling around again and Hunter got excited. So she points the live bird again. So now the bird's not taking off, and my hunting buddy starts yelling at the dog, 'Get the bird! Get the bird!' But I said, "She's not going to grab a live bird! She's a pointer!' But the bird wasn't taking off, so he started chasing the bird.
"Well," Fedele said, "he and the dog are chasing the bird; he's not listening to me. It's just hilarious, and the dog, I swear to God, was looking at him like, 'Hey stupid, are you going to shoot the bird?'"
The two men never did get that rooster. All of which proves nothing so much that if you
love hunting over a Portuguese pointer, it's the perfect breed for you.
Fedele and Johnston would undoubtedly agree.