September 23, 2010
This little-known breed is worth a second look.
Winterhelle's Spark clambered over a partially submerged root wad, half in and half out of the Madison River. Ice clung to his coat and face, giving the youngster the wizened look of Old Man Winter. Eric Trapp, his owner, was up to his knees in river water, watching his dog.
The Madison, of course, is Montana's world-class trout stream, but in November it's duck country. We were hunting on a private ranch owned by a consortium of doctors and managed by an on-site wildlife biologist, Mike Atcinson, who just so happens to be Trapp's personal friend. Sometimes it helps to know people in high places.
We'd had mallards buzzing our small decoy spread all morning, but most had flared at the last minute, giving us iffy shots at best. Trapp finally managed to scratch down a drake, but it hit the river swimming. It paddled to the root wad, crawled up the bank, and disappeared. Trapp's dog charged across the river, spray flying. But with more birds coming in, Trapp decided to call him back and pick up the duck later.
I had that figured for a mistake. It pains me to admit it, but I've wounded scores of ducks that have disappeared under ice-rimmed banks or swum to the far shore, never to be seen again. Some drift around a bend, others vanish into the reeds. Either way, they're gone. But now, two hours later, we were back, and Trapp was encouraging Scooby Doo (that's what you get when you let your pre-school aged kids give your dog his informal name) to move into the tangle of roots where we'd last seen his wounded quacker.
Suddenly, Scooby tensed and began burrowing deep into the branches, half his muscular body buried in the root wad. He backed out a minute later with a very dead duck in his mouth. I raised a cheer. The duck, as it turned out, was minus its head. Back in the blind, Atcinson mentioned he'd seen something dark and feline dart away from the bank. A mink, apparently, had got to the duck before Scooby had. Regardless, it was an impressive display of canine determination.
"Good boy, Scooby!" Trapp said. The leggy pudelpointer skittered around his owner's feet, mighty pleased with himself and more than happy to have another go at it.
With fewer than 2,000 pudelpointers in the entire U.S., this isn't a dog you're likely to see in the field, and if you did you might not recognize it as such. To the uninitiated--count me among them--they look very similar to several other German imports: Drahthaars, German wirehaired pointers and griffons. Scooby Doo is tall (the breed standard is between 22 and 26 inches at the shoulder), leggy, and strikingly handsome, with the mustachioed good looks of a WW1 German artillery officer.
His coat is wiry and stiff and a soft mocha brown, but Trapp tells me that the movers and shakers in the pudelpointer world are still breeding for coat consistency, and that some of the dogs have much flatter coats than others. For what it's worth, on our duck-hunting trip Scooby was so covered with ice he almost tinkled when he walked, but I never saw him shiver, despite sitting outside our blind for two hours with temperatures in the high twenties and low thirties.
"Bird right here, boss!"
The pudelpointer breeding program got off the ground in Germany in the late 1800s when an English pointer was crossed with a German hunting pudel, and to this day the lineage is strictly, even obsessively, controlled. Trapp, for instance, had to sign a contract stipulating that he would, among other things, hunt his dog (no problem there), qualify him in a natural ability test by age two and in a breed improvement test sanctioned by the Pudelpointer Club of North America by age five.
Nor can he neuter his dog or breed it without the breeder's express permission. Finally, the dog must be checked for hip dysplasia, and if found dysplastic must be euthanized. Clearly, such restrictions would rub a lot of American sportsmen the wrong way.
I've had nits to pick with versatile breeds in the past but I'm beginning to come around. Scooby edged me a bit further in that direction. Scooby could stand a bit more discipline--Trapp, a former jazz musician, owns a highly successful restaurant that works him 100 plus hours a week for six months of the year, so training during the work week is tough--but then, you could say that about my dogs, too. And there's no doubt Scooby loves to retrieve. Despite his hectic schedule, Trapp ran Scooby through retrieving drills whenever he could, at one point pen-raising ducks for that very purpose. His work is beginning to pay off.
"I didn't finish the force fetch with him, because I was so happy he was retrieving at all," Trapp says. "So instead, he lays the bird at my feet instead of holding it until I take it, which is something that, with my schedule, I haven't got around to fixing." But that's not a particularly difficult problem to fix, and plenty of sportsmen in this country wouldn't consider it a problem at all.
Trapp is married to a lovely Polish woman, and with two kids and yearly trips back to the old country, his free time is at a premium. But he's been a hunter since childhood and had no intention of giving it up. What he needed was a dog that could perform multiple duties, both in the uplands and in the marshes around his Ennis, Montana, home. He'd seen griffons and wirehairs and liked them both. Then he discovered pudelpointers.
"I met one that I really liked," Trapp recalls. "I liked his disposition, and I liked the fact that he looked like he wouldn't get cold. So, when I finally got established in a house where I could have a dog, I started looking for a dog that could get out and run, more than I'd seen with the griffons I'd watched.
"Plus, he's phenomenal with the kids," Trapp says. "He's sweet as pie. The only time I've ever heard him bark or growl was the day we were pheasant hunting and he winded a dead moose."
Actually, that isn't entirely true. Earlier this season, Scooby was attacked by a pair of otters in the Madison River. The otters dragged him underwater and for a few tense moments things were looking grim. But Scooby slugged his way out after Trapp waded into the melee and shot into the water around the ticked off weasels, who finally backed off. Evidently, Scooby Doo can go toe to toe with an otter, but how does he handle birds? To answer that question, Trapp and I spent an afternoon chasing Huns.
Scooby delivers a mallard to his owner, Eric Trapp.
Like most versatile breeds, pudelpointers won't win many points for speed and style. But to be fair, that's never been a European selling point and not what these dogs were bred for. I found Scooby hunted methodically and fairly close to the gun, about what I'd expected and pretty much in line with what the vast majority of American bird hunters seem to want. I strongly suspect a pudelpointer would shine on thick-cover birds like pheasant, ruffed grouse, and bobwhite and Mearns quail. But we were hunting Huns, a wide-open prairie bird, and the Huns weren't cooperating.
In fact, Scooby was hunting so close to the two of us that it merited a couple of puzzled comments from Trapp. After watching the dog awhile, I began to suspect that he was cactus shy, and was tip-toeing around trying to avoid pricking his sensitive pads. I arrived at this conclusion through no great leaps in deductive logic but rather because I've owned dogs who did exactly the same thing, including my current Brittany, Powder. Forget the birds; if Powder spies cactus, she goes from a dead run to a shuffling trot until she's out of the danger zone.
Sure enough, as soon as we crossed the cactus-infested hillside and hit wheat stubble, Scooby opened up. Suddenly, he was 200 yards out and packing the mail. A few seconds later he was working a covey, his stub of a tail whirring, and a few seconds after that, he pinned them. Unlike some other dogs I've hunted over, who slam into a point like they've just had their necks yanked out of joint, Scooby simply stopped moving. Trapp nodded, but barely had time to say, "Point!" when the birds went up, although through no fault of the dog's. That's just the way Huns are. Some coveys hold, some don't.
This covey didn't. Scooby pointed them twice more, and twice more we flushed them at long range before we finally got close enough for a shot, but I was standing between Trapp and the birds with my camera, and he couldn't shoot.
Still, that bunch gave Scooby a whole new perspective on things. Suddenly, cactus-covered hillsides weren't an issue. I knew a place just over a ridge where another covey lived, and after the three of us hunted our way around, we found them along a dry streambed bordering a fallow wheat field.
Trapp actually spotted the birds on the ground, something that happens to me only once or twice a year. As I watched, Scooby began working scent, then suddenly charged ahead and circled back around, pinning the covey, if briefly, in place. Had he done that on purpose? I'm not going to hazard a guess, but it was impressive to watch. This time, the birds got up well within range, but again, I was standing between Trapp and the covey. Evidently, positioning is something I need to work on.
Scooby isn't bothered by a few icicles. The pudelpointer's coat is resistant to extreme weather and punishing cover.
They flew up a hill (Huns always fly up a hill), and landed just a few feet from the property line. I suggested we approach them from below, which theoretically would keep them on the ranch I had permission to hunt, rather than from above and into a steady breeze, where Scooby would undoubtedly have had a solid point, Trapp would no doubt have dropped two birds, and I would have been in perfect position to photograph the event for the edification and entertainment of you, gentle readers.
Instead, we walked up from below and blundered upwind into the covey, which flushed all around us. Trapp never took a shot. Scooby bolted after them, but returned smartly at his owner's whistle. Throughout both hunts, Scooby was very responsive to Trapp's whistled recall commands.
Trapp plans to continue working on Scooby's retrieving skills, or more accurately, his retrieving commands, since there's manifestly nothing wrong with his dog's drive to retrieve. He also plans to steady the dog on upland birds--a laudable objective. And then, who knows? He may be looking for another dog. His is a busy life, and he wasn't planning on it yet, but there just might be room for another pudelpointer in the Trapp household.
There's nothing half-hearted about Scooby's drive to retrieve. When there's a bird down, he's on his way.