Long before standard poodles were perceived as fancy cover dogs by the mainstream media, they were hardcore hunting dogs prized for their utility in the water. And as it turns out, there are still a handful of dedicated breeders producing world class hunting poodles in North America that are finding their way into our duck blinds and wild bird covers.
History and Development
There is much debate surrounding the origin of the standard poodle. Despite the common claim of it being French, most of the evidence points to Germany. In fact, “Pudel” in German, means puddle dog, or one who plays in water. The poodle’s history becomes even murkier when one discovers the varying terms the poodle and its cousins were given prior to and during its formal development. “Water dog,” “water spaniel” and the list rattles on. Most historians agree a combination of curly coated “water dogs” were used to develop the poodle, swapped and then bred by market duck hunters and pot shooters who primarily utilized these dogs.
Prior to their formal development 400 years ago, many of the poodle’s ancestors and cousins were used to fetch nets for duck netters. But their real utility began when the matchlock saw popular use in 1600 and later with the invention of the flintlock. Both firearms revolutionized duck shooting for market hunters and the like. In this new era of water and gun, the poodle thrived, spreading across Europe in the following centuries. They were swallowed up by England channel hunters in the early 1800s and were favored for a long time by market hunters across the North and Baltic sea. Their popularity waned amongst hunters as duck shooting began its more formal structure, and “water dogs” were replaced in number by “sporting dogs” like the Labrador, who began its refinement in England in the early 19th century.
The hunting poodle faced challenges from the beginning in North America. The American Kennel Club (AKC) unfavorably placed the poodle in the non-sporting group from the start, where it still remains. The Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) also grouped standard poodles into the non-sporting group in 1938, after only briefly having them in the sporting group. This was no doubt in part due to the introduction of the much smaller, non-sporting, miniature poodle.
However, the United Kennel Club (UKC) has historically always classified the standard poodle as a sporting breed and permitted them to compete in their retriever hunt tests from their inception in the mid 1980’s. The CKC followed a few years later and in the late 1990’s the AKC finally granted poodles permission to compete in their retriever tests, even though they had been disregarded since they formally began in 1931.
Modern Hunting Poodles
Many of the same qualities that have allowed standard poodles to dominate competitive obedience events for decades are also traits that distinguish them as a gun dog. Poodles are recognized to be one of the smartest of all K-9 breeds, and that intelligence has serious benefits in the field.
Rich Louter of Louter Creek Hunting Poodles has been training and trialing hunting dogs for several decades and has been specializing in hunting poodles for over thirteen. “They are very smart. They learn quickly and you have to keep things interesting and always think of ways to keep them engaged,” he says.
Another poodle trait that makes them so successful in working capacities is their eagerness to please. They are highly trainable dogs who don’t require much pressure in training. In fact, they do much better without it. They are very sensible dogs with a deep connection to their handlers.
With their long history of water work, a poodle is completely at home in the duck blind. They are not built for hunting big open water like a Chessie, but they do very well for the average duck hunter. With given opportunity, they also have proven to be fantastic trial dogs in both the retriever circuit and in upland tests. Many of the most accomplished poodles in the testing world have been handled, bred or trained by Rich Louter himself.
Size and Considerations
The standard hunting poodle is around 50-55 pounds for males and 45-50 pounds for females, standing 21-24 inches at the shoulder. With this tall, athletic frame, they are light-footed and capable of great endurance in the field. They have keen noses, and their natural intelligence can nourish some great cover identification and bird-finding ability with proper exposure.
But what also makes poodles a fine dog is the other nine months you won’t be hunting. They are easy keepers around the home. They are very family-oriented and want to be close to their handler. Poodles are completely hypoallergenic and do not shed, but their coat does need the appropriate trim and some maintenance. They are also known to have a more defined “off-switch” than many other hunting breeds and are content with lounging, as long as their mind and long legs are engaged and exercised appropriately.
If you want to consider a standard poodle for your next gun dog, make sure to go see the parents work yourself. “Many breeders are trying to capitalize on the buzz words hunting poodle,” says Louter.
You should also watch how the dog handles. Ensure that the breeder is being responsible in health checks and conformation. Observe the dog around the home. Watch its temperament around children. You should expect to see what you want yourself in a gun dog.
With a bit of research and the right breeder, finding a good hunting poodle is a completely achievable target for any wingshooter.