Versatile hunting dogs can do it all

CorrespondentFebruary 12, 2014 

Have you ever wanted to own a hunting dog that could do it all – point and retrieve upland birds plus make long water retrieves launching from a cold duck blind and even track a big game blood scent?

Such dogs exist and are known as versatile hunting dogs, comprised of 32 breeds, many of which are unfamiliar to sportsmen. Also known as Continental Breed, the versatiles are products of Europe and can be traced back hundreds of years.

Many of these hunters excel in some hunting venues, while their performance is less than stellar in others. Most versatile fanciers agree these dogs possess the instinct to hunt most all game if trained properly

The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association, formed during 1969, “is dedicated to fostering, improving, promoting and protecting the versatile hunting dog in North America.” A chapter exists in North and South Carolina with 46 members who train monthly to develop and test their dogs’ natural abilities.

NAVHDA has tested thousands of versatiles with the top 10 including German shorthaired pointers, German wirehaired pointers, wirehaired pointing griffons, pudelpointers, small Munsterlanders, Brittany spaniels, Italian Spinone, vizslas, Weimaraners and large Munsterlanders.

The versatile breeds vary in temperament and physical characteristics, including weight, height, coat, speed and range.

Bryan Pennington, 61, an Alamance County sportsman who refuses to hunt anything that is not wild, claims versatiles are top-of-the-line hunters. He has owned four – three wirehaired pointing griffons and his current dog, Tam, an English setter.

“My griffons did it all,” he said. “They did a great job on everything; pointing woodcock and grouse, retrieving to hand, 100-yard blind retrieves in big, rough water like Currituck.”

Pennington campaigned his griffons in hunt tests on the East Coast and hunted upland birds in Canada.

“My dogs have done everything they were supposed to do,” he said. “I exposed them to situations where they had an opportunity to point and retrieve. I’ve bonded with my dogs carrying them everywhere I go and keeping them in the house.”

Joe Zawadowskie, a retired Duke University manager of the gross anatomy teaching lab, has three Spinone at his Durham home and has an eye on a new pup.

“Spinone are an old man’s hunting dog,” he said. “They’re bred to hunt heavy cover, and they’re not big runners like pointers and setters. It’s nice to have them working close and methodically. They’re soft tempered, can be stubborn and will never forgive you if abused.”

With his Spinone, Zawadowskie hunts ducks from a canoe or flooded timber and upland birds such as snipe and woodcock. He estimates he has harvested 40 ducks and 40 geese during the past eight years.

Darryl McNeill, 54 and a resident of Youngsville, has a passion for the small Munsterlander, an easy-going hunter weighing 35 to 55 pounds. After lengthy research, he located a Munsterlander running in a local hunt test.

“My wife and I went to the test … and got to meet the owner of the only small Munsterlander testing that weekend,” he said. “Based on that dog I knew that I had found my breed.”

McNeil learned that most breeders only sell to hunters who meet strict requirements.

McNeil, who hunts his dog for quail and ducks, says “my dog Timber loves his job and is a joy to watch. The best thing I can say about him is that he’s all business in the field but once the hunt is over he goes back to being the goofy puppy we love.”

Jennifer Caban, 33, of Eastover, S.C., is a neophyte to hunting dogs. She encountered her first bracco Italiano on a trail ride with a friend.

“I fell in love with his personality,” she said. “Gabriel is my first bird dog so I’m learning with him. I’ve learned a lot with this dog, including learning to shoot over him.”

The bracco, a classic and ancient breed and one of only two native Italian gun dog breeds, resembles a cross between a bloodhound and German shorthaired pointer.

“Gabriel has a gentle face. He’s a loving dog who likes to snuggle on the couch,” Caban said. “Outside, he’s all business; inside, all love.”

Her goals are “to enjoy my dog, to see how far I can take him in the various testing levels.”

NAVHDA strongly promotes its four testing levels. The natural ability test is designed to evaluate a young dog’s natural abilities and weigh his potential as a hunting dog. The utility preparatory test judges the dog midway in his progress as a hunter. More experienced or advanced dogs run the utility test. The top level, the invitational test, is for dogs who demonstrate superior skill and obedience as mature hunters. Dogs at all levels are judged by the NAVHDA standard. They do not compete against each other.

Lynn Cox, 72, lives near Pinehurst and is a veteran trainer and handler of Spinone in the field and show rings. She has bred and/or owned 24 Spinone and said little difference exists between field and confirmation dogs,

“We want the field dogs to look like they are supposed to and since the gene pool is small they have a lot of the same dogs in their pedigrees,” she said.

The absence of a split between working and show dogs also is found in many of the other versatile breeds.

Vivian Wiese-Hansen, 60, of North Raleigh, is secretary of the Carolinas NAVHDA chapter. She grew up with Brittany spaniels and English setters, which her father bird hunted. Her interest in versatiles, in particular German shorthaired pointers, sparked several years ago. Now her goal is to put the versatile champion title on her dog Tucker.

She credits the Carolinas chapter with accepting her as a novice and nurturing her through the various phases of training.

“At a clinic I got so excited seeing what shorthaired and other versatile breeds could do,” she said. “…the more I’ve trained and learned and seen my dog progress the more excited I’ve become. It’s not just my dog’s natural ability, but I could soon see he is a thinker…”

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