"Poodles hunt? You gotta be kiddin' me!"
So goes the typical hunter's reaction when someone tells him about using this breed in the marshes and meadows. But three factors have long masked the poodle's hunting talents from the general public's view.
First, although considered a single breed, the poodle has three sizes: standard (over 15 inches at the withers), miniature (10 to 15 inches) and toy (under 10 inches).Even the most gullible hunter cannot picture a toy or even a miniature poodle tangling with an outraged, crippled Canada goose. Granted, some folks do hunt miniatures on smaller birds, but in general when we speak of hunting poodles, we mean only the standard size.
Second, those outlandish dog show coifs that move us to mirth prevent us from visualizing such a dog with all that hair actually hunting anything--except possibly a place on the couch. I'll admit to getting an occasional few minutes of entertainment listening to some dog show handler who has never hunted in his life explain how those fancy trims protect the dog when retrieving in water. In fact, those who hunt their poodles clip them down pretty close to the skin all over, so all that hair is no problem in either water or cover.
Third, poodles have a reputation as circus dogs, trick dogs, great entertainers--dogs that do humiliating things no self-respecting retriever would even consider. Truth is, the poodle simply has more talent--more smarts, if you will--than most other breeds, so they can do much more than "just" hunt. They love to be trained, love to entertain and love to please, so they will do anything the boss really wants them to do, whether in the circus ring or duck blind.
From the Middle Ages, Europeans have always considered the standard poodle a hunting dog. According to Canadian breed historian Emily Cain, Europeans categorized it as a spaniel. However, the French breed name, caniche, comes from chien canard, or "duck dog," so they have also classified it a retriever.
In the 19th century, when the American Kennel Club (AKC) and the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) were established, CKC classified the poodle as a retriever, but AKC tossed the breed into its non-sporting group. In 1938, when CKC recognized the toy poodle, they put both sizes into their non-sporting group.
But the United Kennel Club (UKC) has always considered the poodle a sporting breed. Since 1984, when UKC initiated their retriever hunt tests, several standard poodles have earned the highest titles awarded in those tests. Similarly, the North American Hunting Retriever Association (NAHRA) has always considered the poodle a retriever breed and allows them to participate in their retriever field tests.
In 1986, CKC allowed poodles to partake in their retriever Working Certificate tests. Largely due to the persistent but gentle prodding of poodle breeder and hunter Dr. Grace Blair, in 1996 AKC permitted the standard poodle to participate in retriever hunting tests. Since then, several poodles have earned the highest titles awarded in those tests.
Clearly, the standard poodle has excellent credentials as a working retriever. Hunters all over the country use them successfully in hunting, and run them just as effectively in various retriever hunt tests. For this article, I consulted the following people who do both with their poodles: Angie and Rich Louter of Red Hunting Poodles, Evans Dietz and Gary Scovel of Lakeland Hunting Poodles.
Technically, any poodle that stands more than 15 inches at the withers is a standard poodle. However, most hunting poodles stand much taller, with males 24 to 26 inches and females 22 to 24 inches. Such males weigh 45 to 60 pounds; such females weigh 40 to 50 pounds.
These dogs are tall and lithe rather than short and stocky. Being lean and muscular, they have boundless energy and great stamina. Being highly athletic (whence comes their trick-dog image), they move with attractive grace and style.
Now for the typical hunter's No. 1 FAQ (frequently asked question): What about that mass of curly hair called the poodle coat?
The coat may be any of several solid colors, most commonly black, gray, brown, apricot and white. Notably, this coat doesn't shed. That makes it every homemaker's favorite among canine coats. No dog hairs on the rug, sofa, bed or wherever. Then, too, this coat is hypoallergenic, which makes it the choice of dog lovers who are allergic to breeds that shed.
Since it doesn't shed, if left untrimmed the coat will grow continuously. When it gets long enough, the fur braids itself into long cords that drag on the floor. Thus, every poodle must be trimmed regularly, which is a time-consuming job, even for a professional groomer, and an expensive job for amateurs who choose not to trim their own poodles.
But--and for hunters this is a most important but--no law, rule or directive requires a hunter to keep his poodle in those outlandish dog show trims that make the dog look like a sissified male lion. Au contraire, the hunter may, can and should keep his poodle's coat trimmed down to somewhere around one inch long all over. At that length it curls tightly up against the skin.
Although trimming a poodle this way takes time and effort, it requires neither tonsorial skill nor artistic talent. Of course, it must be done frequently, say once a month. "During hunting season, the coat should be an inch long, or maybe a bit longer," said Angie Louter.
Thusly trimmed, the coat protects the dog in all but bone-chilling water. It will also protect him from upland briars and brambles. It does pick up burrs, but the boss can easily pluck them out with a dog comb or rake. To help slide them out easily, some hunters first spray a little cooking oil on each burr.
The typical poodle temperament is, in a word, delightful: alert, attentive, enthusiastic, eager to please, eager to perform, friendly with all welcoming humans and canines--a gracious host, a considerate guest.
"Jethro, my poodle, goes everywhere I go, including my business," said Evans Dietz. "Kids and adults love him, and he loves the attention."
Nevertheless, the typical poodle is no wimp. Several years ago, a lady told me about being grabbed by a man as she got into her car in a shopping mall parking lot. Her poodle came out of the car, attacked the man and frightened him off. Another woman told me that when a houseguest once accidentally wandered into her daughter's bedroom, her poodle grabbed the intruder's skirt and tugged on it to lead the woman out of that room.
When protecting their owners, poodles seem to have good judgment, applying no more force than necessary. (Incidentally, both of these aforementioned poodles were also hunters that had earned advanced hunting test titles.)
The typical poodle loves to learn to do new things. He loves performing, especially before an appreciative audience, and he's tireless when working. However, he learns quickly and is therefore easily bored, much like the brightest (human) student in class. Thus repetitive drills, like those for the three parts of the blind retrieve (lining, stopping and casting), can bring out the creativity in a bored poodle.
After mastering, say, a particular line, instead of repeating it perfectly over and over, he may experiment and try new things, which is counter-productive in drills. For this reason, the trainer must be more creative than his dog. He must drill him in ways that don't seem repetitive, like mixing in shot flyers or fun dummies between repetitions of a given drill.
The typical poodle also needs a training program that is predominantly positive. He wants to please, so if the boss 'splains what he wants well enough, the pooch will need few corrections. Expressed appreciation for a job well done works wonders with a poodle. An over-corrected poodle shuts down, quits cold and may not revive for some time.
He is a house dog, not a kennel dog. Living in the house allows him to bond strongly with the boss, and figure the boss out from the canine perspective. Since he wants to please the boss so much, this understanding can make him seem like a mind reader in the field.
"To get the most from a poodle, buy him first as a companion and only second as a hunting dog," Gary Scovel said. "His hunting ability will depend greatly on his close bonding with you. He needs that to develop properly in the field."
Like the other retriever breeds, the poodle is an all-rounder, both a waterfowl retriever and an upland bird flusher/retriever. He can hunt waterfowl in any of the various ways: from a shore blind, from a boat, from a field blind and in jump-shooting. He may not take to water as naturally as a Chesapeake Bay retriever, but he can learn to love it, especially if given an early start as a puppy.
"A poodle may take a little longer to enjoy water retrieving," Louter said. "But with a little patience, he adjusts to it nicely."
"Expose a poodle pup to water early and often, preferably with you in the water with him," Scovel said. "Do this when the water is reasonably warm."
"My Jethro took to water right away," Dietz said. "His coat keeps him warm, and it shakes dry very quickly."
Like most retriever breeds, the poodle produces many good duck dogs and a few good goose dogs.
"My wife's Callie is only 22 inches tall and 45 pounds," Scovel said. "She can handle crippled rooster pheasants and ducks, but for geese, I use my larger males, Beau and Scout. Neither has any problem body-slamming an irate, crippled Canada goose and bringing it back alive."
The standard poodle also works well in the uplands, covering the ground thoroughly, flushing boldly and retrieving reliably.
"Our poodles quarter naturally," Louter said, "and they stay in close naturally."
"I've never had to teach a poodle to quarter," Scovel added. "They also sit steady at heel when I'm blocking for a pheasant drive. This took training, but they took to it quite easily. They like to please."
As with any breed, to find a good poodle puppy prospect, you should look for a sire and dam with proven field ability. To begin this search, try contacting any of the three poodle-owning hunters quoted in this story.
POODLE CLUB OF AMERICA (PCA): This is the AKC member club that sponsors the poodle breed in the United States. The site has the PCA rules for the club's Working Certificate Tests (WC/WCX) and much general information of the breed www.poodleclubofamerica.org.
VERSATILITY IN POODLES (VIP): This is a national club that encourages poodle participation in hunting tests, PCA WC/WCX tests, obedience trails, agility rally and tracking. www.vipoodle.org