September 23, 2010
The pint-sized Brittany can run with the big dogs.
This isn't your grandfather's Brittany spaniel. In fact, they don't even have the same name anymore: for whatever reason, the "spaniel" part was dropped decades ago. Now they're just Brittanys — "Brit" is the handle most Brittany owners use.
At the moment, I've got three of them: one of my own and two that I'm training. The distaff half of the two trainees is, with only slight exaggeration, a canine rocket. The only time Check isn't running or thinking about birds is when she's sleeping, and I wouldn't bet the ranch on that. She's 25 pounds of pure canine energy, drive and intensity.
And she's not the only one. My buddy Wil Avril also has a bottle-rocket Brit-tany named Nellie, who is almost as fast and probably just as bird crazy as Check. A couple of years ago, when young Nell was a pup, Wil and I headed over the mountains for a Hun hunt. We were going to a spot where Wil had found birds earlier that season.
We put down Nellie with my setter Scarlet. Scarlet, as anyone who has ever seen her hunt will tell you, is no slouch in the running department, and has a few pounds and several more inches of leg than Nellie. But for the next hour, Nellie paced her step for step.
Speed and range alone do not a good bird dog make, but from the Montana prairies to the mountainous Oregon desert, where the limit to what you can hunt is often how far you can see, speed and range are a good start. Granted, at that age Nellie still had to learn to hunt, not just run, and figuring out where the birds were was something she was just learning. But she's come around quite nicely since then and more than lived up to her initial promise. She seems to have settled on a closer range than my wide-ranging setters, but for every guy like me who enjoys hunting over big-going dogs, there are 10 that like moderate to close workers.
Brittanys were probably never designed to be ground burners. But like several other Americanized European breeds, that is increasingly what they have become. That suits me just fine, although it rubs some traditionalists the wrong way. To each his own.
Oddly enough, Juno, Check's brother, who is also in my kennel this summer, is so different from Check that it's hard to believe he's from the same litter. Unlike Check, who is small ("tiny" might be a more apt description), Juno is stocky, big boned, calm, and more methodical in the field — more traditional in build as well as bearing. Like his little sister, however, Juno is obsessed with birds, but he goes about finding them in a matter-of-fact way, and once he flushes one of the pigeons I put down for him every day, he watches with interest as they fly away, then gets back to the work at hand.
My Brittany, Powder, is also built along Juno's lines. At about 42 pounds, she's no speedster, certainly not as fast as Check or Nellie. But despite being consistently outrun by my two rocket-assed setters, Powder consistently holds her own in the field. In fact, her levelheaded, methodical approach to finding game often makes her my top dog, particularly on hard-to-pin birds like pheasants, chukars and ruffed grouse. That, I believe, is a function of her intelligence and memory as much as her natural ability.
Brittanys sometimes seem just to "stop" on point but it's a good bet the bird will be there.
Intelligence, in fact, seems characteristic of the breed. You can, with perhaps marginal justification, level the claim that Brits haven't got superb noses, great range or intensity on point, but nobody who owns one has ever accused them of being stupid.
My neighbor Tana Kradolfer has been breeding a line of superb Brittanys for years.
"I always hear people recommending the breed because they're a great first dog and so easy to train," she says. "And while I think that is true in a lot of cases'¦the ones that aren't can be some of the tougher dogs to train because they're so smart and so manipulative. They're so good at playing off your emotions that they get out of doing something because they're able to put on a big act." For the record, Kradolfer doesn't entirely agree with my observation that the dogs are getting smaller, and says she's got several 50-pound males in her kennel. The standard is between 30 and 40 pounds.
Either way, breeders with Kradolfer's dedication benefit all the rest of us. The vast majority of hunters in this country want a dog that hunts moderately close to the gun, finds birds and fetches the ones they shoot. Although the trend in the U.S. is toward fast, bigger-running dogs, by and large Brittanys are still moderately close-working animals, but their pizzazz quotient is definitely on the upswing.
"Right in there, boss!"
Unlike some dogs — Labs and English pointers come to mind — Brits don't respond well to heavy-handed training. Powder rules the roost at the Carty residence, making sure my two submissive setters toe the line. She used to try that in the field, too, until the setters simply left her in the dust, and Powder, being the smart dog that she is, knew a lost cause when she saw one and gave up.
But in my yard it's a different story. On an e-collar, she takes half the already light stimulation I use with my other dogs, and even that can be too much. Last spring, I slapped a collar on her and took her outside for a refresher course in obedience. I told her to heel — a command she's known for years — and when she surged ahead, I gave her a modest nick.
Powder went through the roof. She howled, ran back to my side, and for the next two days refused to hunt or point the birds I planted for her. I was smart enough not to do my obedience training anywhere near my bird field, but somehow she made a connection, and it took several days of sweet talking to get her back with the program. She's fine now, and none the worse for wear. But I relearned a valuable lesson: Brittanys are sensitive dogs with very long memories. A soft touch goes a long with these little orange fellows.
I've had several Brittanys over the years, and my last dog, Fancy, was probably the best retriever of the bunch. Although I keep hearing about Brittanys that are "natural" retrievers, in my experience a strong drive to re
trieve is a happy aberration. Fancy was no exception. She made it clear that retrieving was something she'd do if I asked her, but not something she loved. Yet ask her I did, and she usually acquitted herself reasonably well. Perhaps her most noteworthy retrieve happened while my friend Bill and I were pushing up a narrow coulee, and Fancy had just stopped to point.
A digression: I say, "stopped to point" rather than "slamming into" a point for a reason, because that's what many Brittanys do. One of my friends, a setter man to the bone, complains that he can never tell when my Brittany is pointing or simply pausing to take in the view. That hurts, but it's a valid criticism.
Fancy used to seem almost casual about pointing birds, and Powder doesn't show her excitement unless the bird is literally within feet of her nose. This in no way reflects their lack of desire, which may sound like a rationalization until you've seen it happen over and over again, with a dozen different dogs, as I have.
In any event, Fancy, in her casual way, was pointing just ahead, and when the covey went up, Bill wing-tipped a Hun that sailed out 50 yards and vanished in the tall grass. Fancy was after it in a flash.
And then, just as quickly, she disappeared. I stomped out looking for her, fuming. How dare she run away with a wounded bird on the ground? I whistled and called, then whistled and called again. I had no idea where she'd gone. Angrily, I finally began searching for the bird myself. And that's when Fancy reappeared, the still-kicking Hun in her mouth. She'd been trailing the bird a good 10 minutes.
Affectionate and birdy -- that's the Brittany in a nutshell.
Fancy was also a good swimmer, and several times over the course of her 11-year career she was called upon to do water retrieves. Brittanys, unlike most of their spaniel brethren, don't take to water naturally and ideally should be taught at a young age. To that end, I spent most of my first summer letting Fancy romp along behind me on fishing trips. By the time she was six months old, she'd swim in my wake while I waded upstream casting flies.
She never learned to love water like some dogs do (including one of my setters, believe it or not), but she never hesitated to dive in for a retrieve or cross a shallow stream when called upon to do so. Nothing is more aggravating than a dog who runs up and down the bank of a six-inch-deep brook, unwilling to get its feet wet.
Brittanys are handy, pocket-sized dogs that keep well in a small house or apartment. But their reputation for being hyper is overblown, in my opinion. I think a lot of that is from their innate friendliness. Powder is all over anyone who visits my place, to the point of being a nuisance, and it would be easy to assume she's like that all the time. She's not. Within five or 10 minutes she settles down and retreats to her pad, where she spends most days napping.
Still, Brittanys, like all pointing dogs, thrive on regular exercise, something that Powder has been lacking for the last couple months since the season ended. But before too long I'll have my dogs out for evening runs two or three nights a week, which will settle her down considerably.
Powder, however, knows the difference between hunting and exercise. Unlike my setters, who don't need an excuse to run, Powder does. When I attach the three of them to roading harnesses and logging chains, the two setters happily tear around, eager to put their shoulders to the wheel. Powder, on the other hand, plows into the brush to track pheasants, which she pursues at a dead walk. I guess she figures she's saving her energy for the real thing.
My first bird dog was a Brittany, lo these many years ago. But I learned to hunt the prairies over Fancy, my second Brit. Fancy was remarkable for the way she analyzed the game. She was small, quick — although not nearly as fast as some of the dogs being bred today — and I used to watch her as she'd stop, size up a hillside, and then charge up to where she thought the birds might be. I've seen similar behavior with almost every Brittany I've hunted over: a pause as if to take in the countryside or gauge their next objective before moving on.
I remember many hunts over that little dog. On my first trip to the upper Midwest, I swapped out Fancy with another friend's young Lab and the springer I owned, and she ended our eight-day run as the high-point grouse dog of the trip. As was true throughout her life, she adapted to new environments in a matter of days, and with the exception of woodcock — which she would point but refused to retrieve — was soon hunting grouse like a pro.
Today, with multiple years of grouse-hunting trips under their belts, both of my setters are probably better grouse dogs, but neither of them picked it up nearly as quickly. It's a credit to the breed that, among all the Brittanys I've hunted over, Fancy was far from the most gifted. That's something to remember the next time you watch a Brittany "stop" for a point.