The Ugly Truth: Can Show Dogs be Hunting Dogs?
May 20, 2016
The truth of the matter is that for a long time, finding a dog that was both a good show dog and a good hunting dog was a needle-in-the-haystack search.
With some sporting breeds, hunters who appreciated canine good looks were faced with one of two unappealing choices: They could select a pup that would get the job done in the field but was butt ugly, or they could satisfy their desire to have a pretty dog at their side'¦but that's all they had — a pretty dog. The dog couldn't or wouldn't hunt.
Both "show" and "field" breeders share an equal portion of the responsibility for this sorry state of affairs. Too often show people, including the ones doing the judging, lost sight of what these dogs are expected to do on a day's hunt'¦or perhaps they never knew in the first place.
The result, all too frequently, is that whatever is "stylish"wins in the show ring rather than the dog whose looks may not be currently fashionable but meets the standard — a dog that looks and moves like a dog that can hunt all day, then be the first one out of bed raring to go the next morning for another full day in the field.
Field people, for the most part, have traditionally cared little about a dog's looks. Sadly, with the emphasis on speed in spaniel and retriever trials — a Labrador should not look like a black, chocolate or yellow whippet — absolute obedience in retriever field trials and the big running dogs that win most pointer trials, trial dogs are also increasingly not suitable as hunting dogs.
With retrievers penalized for displaying the innate qualities hunters prize in their dogs, pointing dogs running way too big for any hunter who is less than a world-class athlete and spaniels that are a considerable challenge for the average hunter to train, trial dogs are often not being bred for the qualities a hunter seeks.
Making matters worse, many of them carry such serious conformation flaws you wonder how the dogs can make it to the line, let alone run the tests. Certainly they would have difficulty standing up to the rigors of a full season of actual hunting. Even if they did manage to hunt for a time, their conformation flaws would almost always cause them to break down long before the infirmities of age limited their time in the field.
In addition to conformation flaws, many also have temperament issues in that they are so hot-wired that you can't stand to have them with you in the duck blind or the goose pit.
However, in the last 20 years, or roughly since the hunt test programs came along, a sea of change has been occurring. While only a slow and tiny trickle at first, suddenly, glory be, there are increasing numbers of show dogs that cannot just hunt a bit, but actually are pretty impressive performers in the field and the marshes.
All of which is good news for those hunters who like to have a dog that looks like the breed standard says it should. Even among the "lost" sporting breeds — those where there is such a sharp divide between "show" and "field" dogs as to make the two types appear to be totally different breeds — there is a glimmer of hope.
Despite opposition and frequent ridicule from both the "show" and "field" advocates, even in the most severely split sporting breeds — Labradors, goldens, English springer spaniels, Irish setters, English setters, American cockers — there are and have always been a few stubborn individuals who simply refused to believe that you could not have a dog that conformed to the breed standard that was also a superb hunting dog.
For one thing, a dog with correct conformation and efficiency of movement covers the ground better and can do it for a longer time than one that has conformation flaws. "The standards for the breeds are not designed just for show dogs," said Carl Liepmann, an AKC conformation judge who also is a hunter. "In point of fact, most of the sporting dog standards came from the old time field trialers and hunters. They were the folks who got together to compare their dogs both for field ability and conformation.
"When you put the standards to the test they stand up well in that the descriptions of front, rear and gait all describe the quality neces sary to provide for ease of movement needed to sustain a dog during those long, hard days in the field. Many of those standards carry the term 'athletic dog.' Throughout my 50-some years breeding, showing and hunting Labrador and golden retrievers, I have always maintained that it is just as easy to hunt with a good looking dog as an ugly one.
"I have hunted over Labs and goldens for more years than I care to count. Almost all have been show champions and my freezer has never lacked a decent amount of birds of all types to provide quality fare for the dinner table. When I am on my many hunting trips it is a considerable source of pride when hunters in other rooms at the motel comment about how great my dogs look and ask if they really can hunt. At which point it always gives me a lot of pleasure to show them the results of the day.
"Can every show dog hunt? Probably not. But breeders need to understand that it is their responsibility to breed those that can. Watching dogs working in the field that have proper conformation as well as field ability is a sight to behold. Many times the beauty of it takes my breath away."
Within several of the sporting breeds, the idea of dogs with show breeding in their background being terrible hunting dogs has never been an issue. With these breeds, a significant number of breeders have always been very diligent in their efforts to make sure that "show" dogs can hunt and "field" dogs look like the breed standard says they should.
The result is that it is not really all that difficult to find a good-looking Brittany, German shorthair, German wirehair, vizsla, Gordon setter, Chesapeake, flatcoat, curly-coat or some of the more rare spaniel breeds that also can do the job they were bred to do and do it well.
These breeds have legions of dogs that are dual champions, conformation champions with an amateur field championship or champions with an advanced hunt test title. A significant number of these superb field performers have also been standouts in the show ring, going beyond their championships to wins and placements in the Sporting Group and even a best-in-show on occasion. Some have been ranked in the top 10 nationally for their breed in the show ring.
But what if your breed-of-choice happens to be one that is badly split? Then what do you do if you want a pretty dog that can also hunt? According to Fran Smith, DVM, a Labrador breeder who breeds dual-titled dogs, they are available, but it requires some searching to find one and these dogs differ quite a bit in appearance from both the "field" and the "show" types.
"In general, Labradors that can be successful in both the show ring and the field are equally proportioned between body and legs," said Dr. Smith. "In other words, they are proportioned closer to what the breed standard requires than either the strictly field or strictly show types. Field dogs have more leg in proportion to their bodies and show dogs have more body in proportion to leg — 'whippet' field dogs and the 'stuffed sausage with a toothpick at each corner' show dogs.
"While a great majority of the show-bred Labs will hunt, they simply are not effective on land with the type of conformation that's currently the style favored in the show ring. They are fine in the water where the water supports their out-of-proportion bodies, but hunting upland birds or goose hunting is very difficult for them.
"Sadly, most field-bred Labs do not look like Labradors and there is nothing even remotely pretty about them. What's more, many of the dogs from field trial breeding are so 'hot' they are almost impossible to tolerate if you actually want to hunt with them. While there are only about 20 breeders from the thousands of Lab breeders in the country who are seriously committed to breeding Labradors that meet both the conformation standards and the hunting requirements, you can find them if you are persistent.
"Where you should start, and I would say this is true for all the other breeds that are split into 'show' and 'field' types, is on the internet. Look for breeders who have show dogs that can at least get to the AKC senior hunter level or its equivalent in other testing programs. Another good source is the parent club's website. Many feature dogs that have achieved titles in more than one area.
"In addition, almost all parent clubs have 'field' chairs or 'performance' chairs. These people generally know who among the membership has dogs that can earn titles at both ends of their name if this information is not readily apparent on the club's website. The bonus for your persistence is that you'll have a dog that looks like a Labrador should look, is calm enough so it is a pleasure to have in the blind with you and works the way a Labrador should work."
In addition to Labradors and golden retrievers, dual-titled setters often look markedly different than their "field" and "show" cousins. Nina Johnson, who has bred and owned several dual titled Irish setters, said, "The field Irish tend to be smaller and carry much less coat which is sometimes lighter in color, but that is getting better as the field people seem to be moving toward darker red. They have a tendency to have less angulation in their rear ends especially, but also in their front assembly. They hold their tails higher and they have been bred specifically for the field abilities of running fast, finding game, and staunch pointing.
"Show Irish, on the other hand, are larger, have much more coat and their coat color is usually a dark red or mahogany. They have considerably more angulation in front and rear and their tails are supposed to be level and come straight off their back. Unfortunately the show dog's field abilities are not always tested or considered in a breeding program.
"Dual-type dogs are between the two extremes. They are larger than the pure field Irish, but usually smaller than the pure show dogs. They have moderate coats that are generally dark red or mahogany like the show dogs, but their front and rear angulation is more moderate. The really big difference, though, is that the folks breeding dual-type Irish make their breeding decisions based on the dog's field abilities as well as their show qualities, which usually results in a dog that is both easy on the eyes and a good performer in the field."
Pam Seipkes, who has also bred and owned several Irish setters that were gifted field dogs as well as wonderful show dogs, including one that was a multiple best-in-show winner, added that setters that are from dual-titled lines tend to handle birds in much the same way as the old-time setters — that is, they "set" (or crouch) instead of standing upright on point when they find birds.
"This trait was a necessary one for the early hunters — before firearms were invented — because they needed to throw a net over the dog and the birds while they were hunting. Dogs that have dual-type breeding will often crouch with their head and tail tending to be down when they encounter bird scent while the strictly field-bred setters point like pointers and quite frankly, tend to look a lot like long-coated pointers instead of setters,"she said.
People who want a good-looking dog that can hunt probably face the greatest challenge if their hunting-dog-of-choice happens to be an English springer spaniel. But even in this dramatically split breed, there are breeders who are successfully producing dual-titled dogs. Randy Capsel,who has bred, owned, trained and hunts with several springers that are conformation champions and master hunters said, "A good balance between the show ring types and dogs with good field instinct can be found and is a priority for a growing number of ESS breeders.
"These breedings may result in dogs that are not top competitors in the show ring,nor are they able to be competitive in field trials. However, what you do get is a very nice looking dog with great field ability. Their appearance, though, is somewhat different from the strictly show type ESS and very different from the pure field-bred ESS.
"Show dogs generally have a more excessive coat than dual-titled dogs. This is not a desired trait for field work nor does it meet the breed standard but it is 'fashionable.' They are also a heavier boned dog, usually with a 'blockier' look, which is not very efficient in the field. Field springers, on the other hand, are finer boned dogs than most dual-titled dogs and certainly much finer boned than virtually all dogs from strictly show breeding. Field trial bred dogs typically have a more open-marked coat and often possess a great deal of ticking within the coat with considerably less undercoat and topcoat.
"Feathering and ear leather length is also typically much less in strictly field bred dogs. You'll also see greater differences and inconsistency in structure and size in field-bred dogs than in either dual-titled or show springers. It is also important for hunters to keep in mind that springers bred strictly for field trials are bred for two primary characteristics: speed and nose. For a lot of hunters, these dogs are troublesome to train and work.
"It doesn't look like this will change anytime soon due to the intense drive and desire needed to be competitive at field trials. In fact, these characteristics in field-bred springers continue to escalate."
What all this means is that finding a hunting dog with both beauty and brains is no longer such an impossibility that the bookies would take it off the board, even with those breeds notorious for having field and show types that look like two different breeds. Life, or at least your active hunting life, really is too short to hunt with an ugly dog.