September 23, 2010
The WPGCA claims that periodic infusions of new blood have improved this uncommon versatile breed
"You notice how she never gets out more than about 150 yards without checking back in?" Mike Vance and I are working our way into the teeth of a 20-knot wind, the kind that, on the Montana prairie, passes for a breeze. It has snowed, and now the dips and furrows in the plowed wheatfield we're traversing have been filled in and leveled smooth with an overlay of dirty white snow -- a painful problem, as I will soon discover.
But at the moment, my eyes are on Bijo and Aya, Vance's two griffons. Aya is just a pup, and is spending most of her time puttering around Mike's feet. But Bijo is quartering at a smart clip 100 yards or so out front, clearly in tune with her job as Vance's primary bird finder. What's more, she does check back in. Checking in is good. Ergo, dogs that check back in are good dogs. But so much for philosophy.
Quartering "smartly" is perhaps the most accurate way to describe Bijo's pace as well as the pace of several other griffons I've hunted over in the last couple of years. They're not ground eaters--for sheer legs, no griffon I've seen can match the pace of a really hot setter or pointer for long--but they don't dawdle, either. Instead, they run€¦smartly, at a measured pace that my friends, Vance included, claim they can maintain for hours at a stretch.
That's a big advantage if you're a one-dog man; not so much if you're a multi-dog man who dotes on style and speed and is accustomed to hunting a single dog no more than two or three hours at a time. I make no bones about being a style and speed freak, but the truth is, 90 percent of the bird hunters in this country are anything but. They want a dog they can hunt all day, day in and day out. Style and speed don't even make it into the job description.
Style or no style, the birds aren't cooperating. Non-cooperation is a salient characteristic of Hungarian partridge, so when a covey blows out from several hundred yards behind us, flies past, and punches into the wind, I get the distinct feeling they're giving us the raspberry. They settle into the sagebrush a few hundred yards ahead.
My guess is that the day's slow action has nothing to do with Bijo. Despite the lack of birds, she's never stopped hunting--quartering into the wind, lowering her head to puzzle out old scent, then breaking off and casting out again. That measured but determined drive to find game seems characteristic of the breed. I'm hoping that, with the birds I know are ahead, we'll finally see some action, but it is not to be.
When we get into the general vicinity of where the covey put down, Bijo shifts into overdrive, her stub of a tail whirring. She's obviously foot-tracking running birds, but try as she might, she can't seem to pin them. Finally, Vance calls her off and we move on.
This, I suppose, could be considered a fault, but I've seen this happen literally hundreds of times before with virtually every pointing dog I've ever hunted over, none more so than my own. Huns march to a different drummer, and after two decades and then some of chasing them all over Montana, I still don't have a clue where they go. Do they run off? Fly off? I'm open for suggestions.
Besides strong hunting instincts, griffons also get high marks for their companionable nature.
"You notice how she always returns on a single whistle blast?" That's Vance again, and again I've noticed. But we're halfway through the hunt I've scheduled for the day, and with the best cover already behind us, I'm thinking about asking him for another hunt so I can take photos. Scant minutes later I step into a snow-filled badger hole and plunge forward onto my face, badly hyperextending my right knee. In the space of a curse, my season comes to an abrupt end. I'm able to hobble through the remainder of the hunt, but the following morning my knee is so sore I can barely get out of bed.
Luckily, I've seen enough, and what I've seen I've liked. If there really is an all-around pointing dog, a well-trained griffon (drahthaars are also serious contenders) may well be it.
That's not a designation I toss around casually; in fact I've written stories claiming just the opposite. But I'm beginning to come around.
There's good reason for the dog's versatility, and it's called the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Club of America, or WPGCA. Their griffons are expected to quarter within reasonable range of the gun, point game, retrieve upland birds and waterfowl equally well, track and retrieve the wounded, and--a distinctly European requirement--blood-track big game animals. But several decades ago, according to some, those very qualities had gone into decline.
Jim Seibel, a retired food chemist, bird hunter and board member of the WPGCA from Michigan, remembers the bad old days.
"You have to go all the way back to the sixties," he told me. "That's when people like Ed and Joan Bailey--with a lot of help from Bodo Winterheldt--attempted to import griffons [to the U.S.] from all over the world. What was happening was, over the years€¦the dogs that they brought in seemed to all have their own set of problems, everything from temperament problems--not having a lot of desire--to being bootlickers, to having poor coats.
"So that was part of the problem. They couldn't find a dog that had a good coat, they couldn't find a dog without problems, even by importing. So after going through 20 years of doing this, they scratched their heads, and it was Bodo Winterheldt (the founder of NAVHDA) that suggested they outcross to another breed."
The upshot was that the dogs were infused with new blood from a closely related breed called the Cesky fousek (pronounced sezkee foughsek).
"A man named Joe Nadeker came here after WWII from the Czech Republic," Seibel recalls. "He was actually a shorthair guy, but he was aware of the Cesky fousek, which of course we eventually outcrossed to. The dogs (the fouseks) were almost completely wiped out during the war, and they had to rebuild the breed. Today, if you read the fousek standards, it's about as close to identical to the griffon standards as you can get, with only about an inch in difference in height."
The outcross rubbed the AKC the wrong way, however, and they promptly dropped the dog's registry with the club, for reasons that, as near as I can tell, were more procedural than personal.
A close-working, biddable pointing dog with a coat suitable for all types of cover--that's the griffon.
Seibel stresses that the WPGCA is not looking for a fight, least of all with the AKC. "There were good people who disagreed with that [the WPGCA's decision to outcross], people who believe that there is such a thing as purebred dog," he says.
But the outcross, at least according to the WPGCA, seems to have worked.
"Number one, the coats are much better--we've managed to breed away from the soft coats, " Seibel says. "Number two, the drive is greater, and finally, the cooperation is still there. Even though we see dogs that run bigger than they used to, they're not dogs that will run off on you." Setter and pointer breeders take note.
Glenn Lehrer, a charter member of the Rocky Mountain chapter of the WPGCA, a long-time judge and a member of the club's board of directors, says that the WPGCA takes its breeding program very seriously.
That may be a bit of an understatement. Those thinking of owning any of the wirehaired breeds--griffons, drahthaars, or pudelpointers--can be in for a bit of culture shock if they decide to breed their dog. The WPGCA, for one, is emphatically not interested in backyard breedings.
"To us a griffon is a dog that has performance and conformation standards that meet what the dog should be," Lehrer says. "And in breeding we want to repeat that. That's a griffon, not a pedigree." Puppies from every litter must pass rigorous natural and intermediate hunting tests. Conformation, temperament, and coats are evaluated, hips x-rayed (Penn-hip). Records are scoured seven ways from Sunday and breedable dogs are selected from a small list. Furthermore, anyone who buys a WPGCA puppy is presented with a contract stipulating that he or she will agree to all of the above, will breed their female (if it passes the club's stringent qualifications) at least twice and furthermore that he or she will agree to abide by the dictates of the club's breeding committee, which includes the selection of a specific mate.
That puts a lot of American noses out of joint. But before you write off the WPGCA breeding committee as a bunch of socialist control freaks, consider this: breeding a dog--any dog--with a view to improving the breed is considerably more complicated than most people realize (for the record, I haven't even attempted it). Professional as well as amateur geneticists like the late Bob Wehle of Elhew Pointer fame spend their lifetimes figuring out this stuff. Furthermore, the club's strict standards seem to be working.
Non-sanctioned breedings of WPGCA griffons are virtually nonexistent. And for those few that decide to ignore the dictates of the club, well, they'll just have to look for a new organization in which to register their pups.
With something like 300 to 350 WPGCA griffons in the entire U.S., you could hunt a lifetime and never run across one. As it happens, though, southwestern Montana, where I live, is something of a griffon coffee klatch, with close to a dozen of the happy-go-lucky, bristle-haired animals scattered across several mountain valleys. I've also noticed a definite uptick in their popularity, although not all the dogs in the area are from WPGCA breedings. Still, it's clear that the breed's versatility is winning converts, one by one, in Montana and elsewhere.
Count Pete Engman among them. Engman is a wildlife property supervisor for the Wisconsin DNR. He's owned several griffons, and like a lot of American bird hunters, he hunts whatever is in season.
"In a typical fall, my dogs spend maybe a week in early September hunting sharptails in North Dakota and Nebraska, then the woodcock flights when they come through Wisconsin, and then I hunt grouse right up until deer season," he says. "After that it's pheasant, and mixed in with that is duck hunting."
Engman has been around the block with more than a few bird dogs, including Irish water spaniels and Brittanys. But when he discovered griffons, he found a perfect match.
"I was originally looking for a Lab, but I couldn't find a kennel that I liked or anyone that guaranteed them," he says. "Then I ran across an article in a magazine about this Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Club of America and it intrigued me. So I put in for a pup. I didn't get one the first year and was ready to move on. But then they called me and told me I was on the list and would I be interested in a female, because I'd originally been looking for a male. That dog, which I just put down last October, was the best dog I ever had in my life."
Engman's griffon Avian spent her career hunting every bird her master asked her to hunt, and according to Engman, doing it well.
"She was good on everything," he says. "You know, if you hunt ruffed grouse a lot, especially in the north woods, it takes a very adaptable dog to learn those birds. And this dog figured them out. She just knew how to hunt ruffed grouse. She figured out pheasants, everything. I used her for retrieving snow geese in the spring. She loved it all."
Back on my hunt with Vance, Bijo and Aya, I'm grimacing with every step. Bijo is Vance's first pointer, and while her snappy obedience is due in large part to his training, having a biddable dog is always a help. I've got one final request for Vance, though: if we hook Bijo to a sled, can she pull me home?
For more information on the WPGCA and its breeding program, contact the club at 218-647-8451 or check out its website at: www.wpgca.org.