Originally published in the AKC Gazette
Almost all the spaniels and setters were developed in the British Isles—but of the AKC pointing breeds, only the Pointer has its roots in England. The rest come from all over Europe.
European breeds are less specialized than those of the British Isles. None of the retrievers—developed as the ultimate specialists—come from the Continent. Instead, the Continental pointers, particularly the German breeds, were expected to both find and retrieve game. Known as HPR—Hunt, Point, Retrieve—Continental bird-dogs were expected to do it all. A one-dimensional breed such as the English Pointer, originally developed as a game-finding machine, would have been unwelcome in Europe. (The breed was, at a later date, used as a cross by most of the Continental pointing breeds to establish more style and steadiness on point).
In England, the first dog used to find and point game was the Old Spanish Pointer. He was a heavy, large, and somewhat awkward dog with a superb nose, very staunch (steady on his birds), with fine scenting ability. He broke easily, but lacked speed and drive. He was excellent when a pointer was needed to find hares for the Greyhounds or to put up birds for falconry. However, with the advent of wing shooting, a faster, more agile dog was wanted, so crosses were made to the English Foxhound. Thus came into being the English Pointer, considered by many to be the ultimate high-style bird dog.
While he definitely had more speed and agility, he also had less nose and was more fractious. Also, careful breeding was needed to retain the classic dish-face so prized by the ultimate authority on pointers, William Arkwright. By the early 19th century, the English Pointer was the most popular of all bird dogs with British sportsmen.
Made in Germany
The development of the German Shorthaired Pointer, in Germany, started with the same Spanish Pointer that was used in England to develop the English Pointer. But the Germans used the Bloodhound as the first cross, thus obtaining more utility and less specialization. The GSP was expected to hunt birds by day and be able to track animals at night. He was, and is, an all-purpose hunting dog on both fur and feathers.
He arrived in the United States in the 1920s and very soon became popular. He is now almost exclusively used for bird hunting, as few American hunters want their bird dogs working any kind of fur. The GSP is one of the top dual breeds, with the same dogs competing in both show and field.
Developing along the same lines in Germany was the German Wirehaired Pointer (GWP). Several well-recorded crosses were made to the Strichelhaar, German Shorthaired Pointer, Griffon, and Pudelpointer. Except for his coat, the GWP is very similar to his Shorthair cousin. He is an energetic, intelligent bird dog of moderate range. Coming to the United States in the 1920s, he has made a slow but steady gain in popularity.
Created in the late 19th century, the Wirehaired Pointing Griffon was the creation of E.K. Korthals. Korthals wanted the perfect all-around hunting dog that could handle fur and feathers, and also boast the perfect coat for anything from icy water to the thickest briers. Starting with a Griffon bitch and a GSP, he is supposed to have crossed in both spaniel and Otterhound. Korthals started developing the breed in Holland but later moved to France. In Europe, the breed is still called Korthal’s Griffon.
Arriving in the United States early in the 20th century, the Griffon was slow to gain widespread popularity, due to his somewhat slow and methodical way of going. Still, he is excellent for foot-handling and excels in marshland, where his wire coat serves him well.
Yet another German pointing breed is the Weimaraner. Developed in the late 18th century by the Grand Duke Karl August at the Court of Weimar, the breed was originally bred for the hunting of large game and was a cross of Red Schweisshund and Bloodhound. This was a doubling up on Bloodhound, as the Schweisshund traces back to the Saint Hubert Hound.
With the industrialization of Germany, big game became scarce, and the breed was adapted to hunting birds. Crosses to the GSP and to the English Pointer were made. The Weimaraner Club of Germany was formed in 1897, and at that time, only club members were allowed to own the breed. Finally, in 1929, American Howard Knight went to Germany and became a member so that he could purchase and import Weimaraners to the United States.
The oldest of the Continental pointing breeds is the Vizsla. There are 10th-century stone etchings of Magyar (Hungarian) huntsmen with falcons and Vizslas. There is also a 14th-century manuscript describing falconry and the use of dogs.
Used to hunt the plains of Hungary, they needed to be both swift and cautious, with a color that would camouflage them in ripe corn. With the Turkish occupation of the 15th and 16th centuries, there is continuous record of the yellow quail-hunting dogs of the Turks. Finally, in the 18th century, netting and falconry turned to firearms, and by the 19th century, some pointer crosses had been made to stylize and steady their point. Survival during the 20th century was difficult, as for most breeds in Europe, and but for the devotion of a few, the breed could have become extinct.
Another old breed is the Spinone Italiano. As far back as 500 b.c., Senofone describes in his “Gynegiticon” rough, bristly-haired dogs with great endurance and exceptional ability to point game. It is not clear whether the Spinone is descended from the rough-coated dog of the Middle Ages called the Segugio, or, as some historians maintain, originates in the Alps of Piedmont, similarly to the Barbet and Griffon. In either case, he was held in high regard for the tight contact he kept with his owner when hunting. During the first quarter of the 20th century they became almost extinct, and it was not until the 1930s that they regained popularity.
The Brittany was developed in northern France. The first accurate records are 17th-century tapestries and paintings, both in France and Holland. The Brittany is an all-purpose hunter once very popular with poachers, due to his silence and quickness. In the 1850s, Reverend Davies wrote of hunting in Calais with small, bobtailed dogs, not as smooth as Pointers, but that worked well in the brush and pointed and retrieved their game well. Around 1900, there is record of crosses being made with the English Setter, which enhanced their pointing style. They came to North America in the 1930s and are today among the most popular of bird dogs in America. Brittany owners remain steadfast in the duality of the breed, dedicated to both shows and field trails.—D.M.
Canine historian Dorothy Macdonald is a longtime AKC judge. In 2001, she judged Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club show. For her article “The Setters: Beauty and Bird Sense,” click here.
Art: From the AKC collection—“Beaufort” (Pointer), by Gustav Muss-Arnolt; “Two Pointers on Point in a Field,” by Maud Earl; “Dual Ch. Saxon of Fredann” (Brittany), by Iwan Lotton
AKC parent clubs: American Brittany Club, American Pointer Club, German Shorthaired Pointer Club of America, German Wirehaired Pointer Club of America, Spinone Club of America, Weimaraner Club of America, American Wirehaired Pointing Griffon Association