April 17, 2012
The Weimaraner, from the beginning of its breed history more than 100 years ago, has been known as the "Gray Ghost" — a good nickname for a gun dog with a silvery coat and somewhat spooky-looking yellow-amber eyes. Originally developed in Germany at the court of Weimar (hence its name), the Weimaraner was successfully bred to be a versatile hunter of upland gamebirds, waterfowl, predators, and big game.
When it arrived in North America, however, several changes came about to reduce the status of this breed as a functional gun dog. Though introduced here in the 1920s, the Weimaraner did not become popular until the 1950s when the Weimaraner Club of America hired a professional publicist to promote them as a "super dog" designed to out-hunt all other versatile breeds. The exaggerated claims created a surge in the number of dogs bred and sold. But when the claims were exposed to the harsh light of reality, the Weimaraner's popularity and reputation as a gun dog plummeted.
About this same time, the dog show people picked up the Gray Ghost as a flashy favorite for winning ribbons at Westminster. The Weimaraner's hunting genetics took a downturn with more emphasis on appearance on the show bench than prowess in the field. Though some hunt testers, a few field trialers, and a handful of gamebird hunters kept the Weimaraner's original purpose alive, the breed had at best a compromised position compared to most other popular versatile breeds.
In the 1990s, the Weimaraner's reputation as a gun dog took yet another hit when a professional photographer used several Weimaraners for a series of pictures in which the dogs were dressed in people clothes and phony wigs. While this may have created another upturn in the popularity of the dogs among the general public, it further undermined the breed's original purpose as a hunter.
The good news nowadays is there's a much brighter future for the breed because of the revival of its role as a hunting dog in North America.
Hunt 'Em Up
By breeding Weimaraners from field trial stock with dogs imported from Germany, Judy Balog has produced three Versatile Champions in the NAVHDA testing program.
"The field trial bloodlines have offered an increased range and speed in the field and the original German genetics have brought in greater nose sensitivity and hunting intensity," Balog says. "Generally, our hunting line of Weimaraners is physically a little smaller and has more stamina than many of their American lines from the distant past.
"Our Weimaraners tend to be dynamos that some less experienced hunters and dog owners might find a little harder to train and to handle. That's why I introduce e-collars early in my dogs' training program as a good way to shape behavior from the start and to avoid problems later. An e-collar with a remotely activated beeper also makes hunting more efficient and enjoyable, especially when chasing after ruffed grouse around our home in Michigan or when making trips to South Dakota for pheasants."
For anyone wanting to buy a Weimaraner intended for hunting, Balog recommends looking for proof of the parents' abilities when considering a pup or started dog.
"Personally see the parents of any for-sale Weimaraner at work on an actual hunt or during a realistic facsimile of a hunting experience," Balog emphasizes. "There is an old saying that 'you pay for the puppy, but you get the mom and dad.' In other words, seeing the parents at work on live gamebirds, whether wild or pen-raised, will tell you a lot about their offspring.
"Check out official credentials," Balog advises. "Parents with high scores in field trials, AKC or UKC hunt tests, or in the NAVHDA testing programs will most probably produce pups with lots of genuine old-style hunting instincts in them.
To contact Balog, e-mail her at email@example.com or call (231) 938-4426.
Feathers or Fur?
"Weimaraners bred from first generation German imports might tend to be big-game hunters — whether the dog's owner likes that tendency or not," says Allen Fine, owner of two German-born 7-year-olds. "On our first hunt for prairie grouse in South Dakota, both my dogs took off after a young buck antelope. By the time I got out my e-collar transmitter, Boz and Rick were over a steep hill and out of sight. Fortunately, both of them came back in 20 minutes — with the young antelope following behind them."
When the dogs saw the antelope, they both gave chase again. "This time I was ready to deliver maximum stimulation which convinced them that antelope were no fun and were not to be hunted. Since then the same lesson has been taught to educate them about running after deer in Kansas and moose in Minnesota," Fine says.
"One thing I learned from these unwanted hunting experiences is that my Weimaraners could be taught by using the e-collar to stay away from big game. The dogs could also be persuaded the same way to avoid undesirable encounters with snakes, skunks, raccoons, porcupines, and any other critters out there that can wreck a hunt for gamebirds."
Hunting in Range
"Fritz was a big runner from the time he was a little puppy," Ed Truelock says to explain why his 2-year-old Weimaraner had already disappeared way down the field in an AKC Hunt Test. The judges, mounted on horses, were the only ones able to keep up with the speeding, wide-ranging dog. Fritz did find and point a couple of quail, and once the birds were flushed, he was off again at a fast pace to find more of the little birds.
"My first Weimaraner was out of show dog lines and, though he hunted up close, he didn't hunt very hard or produce much game when we went after quail in Texas or pheasants in Nebraska," Truelock recalls. "So I looked into Weimaraners from field trial stock and bought Fritz, who had more drive, a better nose, and greater speed — much greater speed, in fact."
Fritz covered four times more ground in one-fourth the time of Truelock's first Weimaraner, which was a big problem in any thick cover where the dog couldn't be seen.
"When hunting ruffed grouse in Michigan last year, I lost Fritz for three hours," Truelock reports. "After that experience, I got an e-collar with a beeper-locator. And though Fritz still runs fast and far, I can now more easily find him."
The beeper-locator is also used by Truelock as a communication tool with multiple beeps as a signal for the dog to come in when necessary.
"I lean on the locator button to produce multiple beeps that let Fritz know he should start looking for me when we are in tall prairie grass, dense cattails, or thick timber," he says.
"By combining the continual beeps with some mild stimulation, I taught Fritz in about a week of training to consistently come in on command, which encourages him to hunt close as a regular habit."
"Most well-bred Weims that I've seen respond well to traditional training techniques," says Cam Rice, who lives in Michigan where she and her husband regularly hunt ruffed grouse and woodcock. "Teaching basic obedience and doing yard work is pretty much the same as for any other breed of gun dog except that some Weims can get bored with routine exercises. This is mainly because they tend to be too smart to put up with too much repetition. So the trainer needs to understand this and adjust lessons to keep any teaching fresh and different — and entertaining."
Rice and her husband regularly use their Weimaraners when guiding on hunting preserves for pheasants, bobwhite quail and chukars.
"Several hundred bird contacts at a preserve every year are a good way to test our training techniques and to see how much talent our dogs have," Rice says. "Watching the dogs point and retrieve several species of pen-raised and released birds is also a good way to evaluate each dog's desire, nose, cooperation, and tracking ability — something we might not see as much when hunting wild birds. Though we test our Weimaraners in NAVHDA, the hunting preserve tells us a lot about how good each dog is.
"All our Weimaraners are also duck and goose hunters that will handle on blind retrieves out to several hundred yards. In icy water, we put a neoprene vest on our dogs to protect them from the extreme cold," Rice says. "No, Weimaraners are not as tough as Labradors, but they can fetch a duck or goose from several hundred yards when necessary," Rice says.
"Though we have only one litter of Weimaraners every once in a while, we do know of other breeders who may have pups for sale. However, we and they will sell dogs only to people who promise to hunt them," Rice emphasizes. "After 29 years as a detective in the police department, I do know how to get the truth from someone in an interview, " she adds with a big smile.
Weims in Water
Can a Weimaraner plunge into a frigid pond and make a 200-yard retrieve on a downed Canada goose?
"Of course," Rice replied.
So we set it up and watched Rice's dog work. As a NAVHDA Utility Prize I title holder, this dog had earned his degree in the test by doing a successful duck search after months of training to look for live ducks swimming in watery cover similar to where the big honker was now stashed under a pile of cattails.
As expected, the big male took a hand signal to fetch and made a blind retrieve. Though he had seldom retrieved a bird this size, he came swimming back with the 10-pound honker.
"Put a neoprene vest on a Weimaraner and, if trained to do so, most of them will fetch waterfowl in just about any situation," Rice says.
Early introduction of a pup to water, regular practice in retrieving in a variety of places and lots of opportunities to fetch wild ducks and geese are the combination of ingredients Rice uses to make her Weimaraners dependable waterfowl hunters.
House or Kennel?
When Lori Kenner and her husband Jim decided they would like to have a gun dog, they wanted a breed with a calm temperament.
"We went to look at a litter of Weimaraners about 50 miles from our home and saw the pups' mom and dad. Both the parents seemed pretty laid back and easy-going with no jumping up or barking when we came into the yard. Because of this impression, we took home two puppies instead of just one," Kenner says.
"My two Weims have been kennel dogs by day and house dogs by night. This is a combination they taught me as best for all of us," Kenner says of his 5-year-olds, Nick and Kit. "We wanted to raise both dogs to live in the kennel full-time, but as pups they stayed in the house most of the time because the weather here in Maine can be bitterly cold all spring. So, by the time summer came and they went into the outside kennel run, they decided that was okay during the day — but at night staying inside our house was better.
"From the beginning, both dogs were kept in the downstairs family room where they would lie on throw rugs in the evening to watch television with us then spend the night sleeping in individual crates," Kenner says. "Though there was an initial period of adjustment to this arrangement, both dogs soon accepted this routine."
In the outside kennel run, both of Kenner's dogs were barkers at first, expressing their anxiety at being left alone during the day.
"Because we have neighbors close by, we used 'bark collars' to control the noise. Within a week, the problem was pretty much solved and both of them adjusted to the new situation.
"Though some lines of Weimaraners can be high-strung and hard to handle, many lines of this breed have calm temperaments that, with the right early training, can produce gun dogs that can be good house dogs and outside kennel dogs," Kenner said. "And, in most cases, in the field they will be good gun dogs."
Hunting and Beyond
A good cross section of today's typical Weimaraners is represented by the three gun dogs owned by Scott Roker and Tresha Moorberg from Lincoln, Neb.
"We have one Weim out of a combination of field trial and show lines, another with good AKC Hunt Test scores along with some NAVHDA credentials, and a third from a rescue program that gave us little information about the dog's background. All three of them are good hunters and great house dogs," Roker says.
Like a lot of Weimaraner owners, Roker and Moorberg were attracted to the breed by its color and stately stature. "But we soon learned that there is more to these dogs than their handsome appearance," Moorberg says. "All three of our Weims are solid hunters on pheasants and quail, which for us was a pleasant surprise because we were warned by some so-called dog experts that many lines of Weims had most of the hunting instinct bred out of them."
Because Weimaraners are such high energy canines, Roker and Moorberg exercise their dogs for an hour every day. "A half-hour run in the morning and 20 minutes or so of dummy fetching in the late afternoon keeps the dogs in shape. But what really helps to improve their hunting abilities is to train them for AKC hunt tests and field trials and for NAVHDA testing," Roker said.
"Preparing for and participating in these events between hunting seasons makes the dogs perform better during the hunting season. And though this probably applies to all hunting dogs, this practice seems to work out well for our Weimaraners."
On Its Way
"Your best Weimaraners hunt as well as any good German shorthaired pointer," someone in the pheasant hunting party remarked as one of Balog's Weims came racing across a cut cornfield with a rooster pheasant it had tracked, pointed and was now retrieving.
After a few moments of thoughtful silence, Balog responded, "I'll take that as a real compliment — and a testimony that the Gray Ghost can be well on its way to returning as a true hunter on the same level as any other popular versatile gun dog."