The Italian Bird Dog: Bracco Italiano
Today's Bracco Italiano is an ancient and stylish breed of gun dog that still works for the modern-day bird hunter.
Gabe sure doesn’t look like a typical gun dog.
With those long, floppy ears and thick, flappy jowls, he looks more like a hound dog that should be chasing rabbits, treeing raccoons, or tracking mountain lions. But, here we are on a pheasant hunt, where this Bracco Italiano is expected to search, find, point, and retrieve roosters.
Not everyone who sees Gabe says this, but most hunters who know gun dogs probably think this—at least on first impression, according to Bob Powers who got Gabe as a 10-week-old puppy. Gabe was a surprise birthday present from his wife, who bought the little dog because he was “so cute.”
His wife got the little pup from a person who never provided any pedigree or registration papers, so Powers didn’t know much about the breed in general, or this pup in particular. He was pleasantly surprised, however, when at four months of age, Gabe sight-pointed a pheasant wing flipped in front of him on a string. Then, two months later, he scent-pointed a live pigeon hidden in a clump of grass.
Gabe’s first live pheasant was a pen-raised bird set up in a cloverfield on a hunting preserve. According to Powers, the dog tracked the running rooster, pointed it, and retrieved it after the shot.
“After that, we hunted wild pheasants for five days in South Dakota, where the then year-old Bracco Italiano kept up with my brother’s German wirehair and my cousin’s three-year-old Labrador,” said Powers. “Gabe had a good nose, natural search and pointing abilities, a strong retrieving instinct, and generally was obedient and cooperative.”
“Now I’m not going to claim that Gabe is a better dog than any other breed, but I will say he can hold his own with the average gun dog when we’re after pheasants,” said Powers. “Gabe tends to stay closer to the shotgunners than most German shorthairs, but works a little further out than the average Labrador—and he can follow and find wounded roosters as well as any other dog.”
According to Powers, Gabe has a natural working style, where he paces himself to hunt at a steady trot rather than a gallop, so that he has more daylong stamina and endurance than most other dogs. That trotting motion is one major characteristic of most Bracco Italianos. This is a trait well established by the Italian breeders who, as the history and legend goes, wanted a dog that could go all day in the flat fields and hilly terrain of the Italian countryside.
"That's a Bird Dog?"
The Bracco Italiano doesn’t look like your average bird dog. In fact, at first glance they look like a cross between a German shorthair and a bloodhound. The long ears, droopy eyes, and elongated trot all give people the first impression that they’re staring at a hound. Bracco owners are used to having to explain that, indeed, their dog is a pointing breed.
The breed is known for being lean and well-sculpted. They are also famous for what is commonly referred to as the “Bracco Italiano trot,” or what Italians call, “trotto spinto.” This naturally gated pace helps the breed save energy for all-day hunting in dry conditions. The trot is beautiful to see and includes the dog’s head held high, legs well extended, and an instant where all four paws are off the ground.
Unlike other pointers that lower their heads to be even with their body when on point, the Bracco Italiano generally stays upright, keeping his head held high and his tail stiff and lowered.
Finding a Puppy
Because Bracco Italianos are a relatively rare breed, looking for a puppy from well-bred and hunt-tested parents can be difficult, says the President of the Bracco Italiano Club of America, Dick Propernick.
“Although Bracco Italianos are a rare breed, there often are puppies available; however, unfortunately from those who are most interested in making a quick buck,” says John Cavalier, BICA treasurer and one of the founders of the Club. “As a consequence of producing dogs for monetary reasons, many Bracco Italianos for sale are not necessarily proven hunters that have been formally judged in organized hunt tests, such as those conducted by the NAVHDA. Oftentimes, there is little proof that these dogs have been used to hunt for game birds.”
Before walking away with a puppy, it’s important to ask the breeder if the parents have been tested for kidney disease. This disease is hereditary, and can be identified through DNA examination and consequently controlled by not breeding dogs that carry the genetic markers of the disease.
Each year, the Brocco Italiano Club of America has a National Specialty event in which members meet at a central location in the U.S. to examine their Braccos in hunt tests to evalutate individual dogs for search, bird-finding ability, point, cooperation, retrieve, gait, temperment, and other significant hunting skills. Overall hunting style is also emphasized. This is an ideal time to meet fellow Bracco owners and potential breeders.
The Future of the Breed
“As with most breeds of modern-day gun dogs, the Bracco Italiano is a work in progress,” according to Propernick. “Our Club standards are dedicated to maintaining and improving the Bracco as a fully functional gun dog. We have targeted a number of objectives that need specific attention by both breeders and owners.”
According to John Callici, long-time Bracco Italiano breeder and hunter, it’s important to preserve the Bracco’s unique conformation qualities and special working motion in the field. Their traits have been developed over hundreds of years, and can be diluted or lost if not given consistent consideration in testing and reproducing.
“We need to develop a broader and deeper gene pool by further diversifying our brood stock within North America,” says Callaci. “This can also be done by importing more top-rated Bracco Italianos from Italy and other European sources.”
For many people in general, and game-bird hunters in particular, when first looking at a Bracco Italiano, there is no denying that first impressions are important. But, when seeing this breed of gun dog on a hunt, there often is the realization that first impressions sometimes can be misleading. Despite the Bracco’s unusual appearance, this breed has a special style and a long history as the “real deal of a gun dog” for modern-day bird hunters.