I don’t know how many times I have talked to someone and they said “ole (insert name here) was the best hunting dog I ever had and I would just like to get another one like him or her”. It very well might be that he or she was, or is the best hunting dog they ever had, but that doesn’t mean it is a great, or even a good hunting dog. However the most important thing is that you like your dog, and it is treated well. Hunting dogs are just like people and no dog is perfect.
I could probably write an entire book on my opinions for what makes a good hunting dog, and someday I probably will write a book. For this entry in my blog I’ll just say what I think for GWP’s and not go into all the other hunting dogs. For a GWP in my opinion it comes down to three words, Find, Point, and Retrieve. Now of course there are a lot of things that a dog must have for each of these traits before they can be a good hunting dog. Great hunting dogs that excel in each part find, point, and retrieve are way less abundant than most people ever want to admit. Depending on what part of the world you live in and what game you are hunting the importance of these three words can vary greatly, but most hunters with a GWP will put some importance on each of these traits.
I looked up the definitions of hunting and killing just for reference.
Hunting. The pursuit and killing or capture of game and wild animals, regarded as a sport. The act of conducting a search for something,
Kill. a: To deprive of life: cause the death of. B (1): to slaughter (as a hog) for food (2): to convert a food animal into (a kind of meat) by slaughtering
Hard core hunter is a term I hear a lot and one way to really fire some guy up is say they aren’t hunting when they think they are hunting. If you just look at the definition many people are really not hunting because of the lack of wild game. Wild game has been pursued by predators all their lives and that game is not going to just let you go kick them. They are going to try very hard to elude you and your dog so you can’t kill them. The more they have been hunted the more difficult it will be for you and your dog to be a successful hunter. One thing I do realize is that in some parts of the US and other places around the world like in Europe the wild game, especially in the form of native upland birds species is very limited. People have to hunt private game farms, or other public areas that are stocked with pen raised game where they pay a fee to hunt pen raised birds. In my mind this is not hunting, but a substitute to come as close as possible. I realize some people could refer to me as a wild game hunting elitist or conceded because of my opinions, but that is just how I feel about hunting. To me hunting is much more than killing. I think there is a big difference between the two. I have done lots of hunting, and even more killing in my life so I have a good understanding of the difference. Hunting is a fair chase act in which your quarry usually is not an ignorant animal waiting to be killed. They are wild animals avoiding the dangers that will end their lives.
When it comes to GWP hunting dogs I think I should start with each of the three things I find important and offer my thoughts on each. I have gone back and forth over the years as to which one is the most important, and it still seems to change all the time. I would say they are of equal importance.
At first thought you would think this is obviously the most important job for your hunting dog. If the dog doesn’t find any game then the point and the retrieve don’t come into play, and you won’t be a successful hunter. The find part of the equation will require the most things to come together in your hunting dog. This is where run, desire, structure, nose, eye sight, hearing, and intelligence all have to be working like a well-oiled machine. There are going to be days where the game may be sparse and if the dog slows down it might miss the few opportunities it has to find something. It can be very difficult to find a dog that can be great at finding chukar in the hot dry conditions of the west and also be great at being a duck dog in cold water conditions in places like the north woods. It’s kind of like wanting an offensive lineman to play wide receiver every other play. This is where a GWP has to be versatile and may not be as good as say an English pointer in the chukar hills, and maybe not as good as a Chesapeake in the cold water. But when you combine the two dogs a good GWP hunting dog will be good at both jobs and better than having two dogs.
If I’m hunting a very young dog I don’t like to run them too far without finding something to keep them excited because I know there will be days when they are older they will need to grind out a few hours for maybe just one chance to find something. Without the desire, run, and structure they might just quit like some people when the times get tough. This is not a good hunting dog, or if it is a human it is not a good person to go hunting with.
Nose is something that I think is overlooked. All dogs have superb abilities to smell things, but those abilities can vary greatly from dog to dog when it comes to finding wild game. You don’t really know how good your dog’s nose is until you test them in hunting situations in many different conditions with many different types of game. A dogs ability to find game varies not only from dog to dog, but from game to game. Some dogs are better at finding deer than another dog, but that other dog is better at finding sharp tail grouse. One thing about a lot of organized testing or field trials is the use of pen raised birds. Very seldom do I see dogs point any of these pen raised birds at a distance or indicate that they pickup them up at a distance. It doesn’t mean they won’t be able to handle wild game at a distance, but there is nothing to tell me they can point wild game at a distance where they won’t flush the game by getting too close. They are not required to be a good hunting dog because they are not actually hunting in my mind. Dogs quickly figure out human, or horse, or 4-wheeler scents leading them to a bird that has been tossed in a bush. If the dog is smart and trainable and has been rewarded for finding these birds in the past it will become very efficient at the test or game like a field trial. These smart field trial dogs will rarely run outside the areas where the scent paths exist because they have learned nothing is outside these boundaries. This is a major flaw in the testing or field trials that most people don’t even think about because they don’t hunt their dogs on enough wild game to understand what the dog is doing at the testing or field trials.
I do think the testing and trials is a great way to test the trainability of dogs which is another important part of the find in a good hunting dog. While the dog is trying to find you something it has to have some trainability or it will be self-hunting and not working with you. If the dog is always self-hunting it will satisfy its desires without you being part of the team.
Intelligence, good eye sight, and hearing all of which can vary greatly from dog to dog are also important during the find. I’m always watching young dogs to see how smart they are hunting. Most young dogs are like teenagers, lots of energy, but not too smart how they use it. When you watch an older hunting dog that knows how to hunt smart they don’t waste energy. Very few people ever notice the times a dog is not hunting smart, but any wasted energy will be something that slows the dog down on a long hunting trip. When I’m big game hunting in the mountains I always say maintain E whenever possible, E being elevation. It is senseless to walk down a mountain just to walk back up the same mountain, but I have seen people do that exact thing many times. I will see young dogs run up and down hills covering areas they could have hunted without losing E. Then I will see an older dog get up on the hill and work it correctly while not going up and down unnecessarily. One thing I don’t see in testing or trials as much as I do with good hunting dogs is working the wind correctly. If a dog makes a move for an objective it needs to work the wind correctly or the energy spent getting to the objective is just wasted energy. It takes most dogs a while to learn how to hunt with the wind at their backs. Most young dogs will want to work into the wind all the time even though you might be guiding them to some other areas when the wind might be at their backs. Some just want to run hard straight out with it blowing up their butts. Good dogs work objectives back into the wind, and then get to another objective to work that area back into the wind. I call it fish hooking with a Z to it. It is hard to explain without a picture or watching a dog do it, but it works well for the good hunting dogs.
Point is very simple. When the dog finds game it needs to point it until you get there no matter how long that takes. The dogs that don’t hold point for a long time are not great hunting dogs. Point is very important because the dog that doesn’t hold point is just a flushing dog and not a pointing dog. I feel like too many GWP’s don’t have enough point to be great hunting dogs. I like dogs with lots of style on point just because it looks better to my eye, and when they have less style it usually tells me they don’t like what they are pointing. Some dogs just don’t have great style, but are still intense. If they don’t have style or intensity then you have a dog that for some reason isn’t committed to the task, usually caused by a training issue. After I get a dog out a few times I can usually tell what they are pointing just by how their tail looks while on point. Say they are pointing a porcupine that they have been corrected on, or maybe a deer that they have been advised not to chase. Most of these times like the previous examples they will be softer on point than they are on a covey of birds that they have not been corrected on and are confident on. Some dogs like my dog Cruiser never pointed a pen raised bird or pigeon with as much intensity as any wild birds. He did this from the time he was a pup well before any training could have influenced his decisions, but he had lots of wild birds as a foundation. Other dogs like Zoie who pointed everything with style and intensity can be more difficult to read while on point.
If you shoot something you want your dog to go find it, and bring it back to you. I have had people with backgrounds in VDD and NAVHDA tell me they don’t need the dog to find live game because they can do that themselves, but they need them to be excellent trackers to find dead game or wounded game. I can understand the finding dead game or wounded game. But I know if you are hunting wild game the dogs are way better at finding live wild game than me, and I’m pretty good at finding wild game. The natural retrieve is important for the GWP and tends to get overlooked because you can just force break a dog to retrieve. Most of the hunters I deal with want a dog to have lots of retrieve, and lots of point. Some pointing breeds like the English Pointer are not always big on the retrieve, especially a water retrieve. A GWP with lots of retrieve can be more difficult to train to be steady to the flush and shot because they really want to get the dead bird and retrieve it. In most commercial pheasant shooting operations the guides don’t want a dog holding point through the shot, they want them digging in after the birds on the flush so they can get to tracking them sooner, or even be right under the bird when they hit the ground. These kick and shoots with poor shooters provide a dog with lots of wounded game retrieves. When hunting wild birds the retrieve is important because most of the time if these birds are wounded they will really take off to get away, especially runners like chukar or pheasants. Duck or goose hunting for a GWP in my mind is very little hunting and lots of retrieving. Of course most of the time they will be in the water, and maybe doing blind retrieves. Some training can be needed, and a good nose and eye sight will come in handy during the search. Dove hunting is also similar to duck hunting, except most likely you will be doing it in hot dry conditions with rattlesnakes present.
Other factors that come into play with a GWP hunting dog are coat, temperament, structure, swimming ability.
When we 1st got GWP’s my thoughts on coat were much different than today. My wife was a dog groomer so a bad coat didn’t bother me because she always kept the bad ones groomed. Now that I have hunted with GWP’s with great coats, good coats, average coats, and poor coats I know good or great coats are a must for good GWP hunting dogs. Hunters really want good coats, and don’t want to have to deal with grooming a hunting dog. Good coats hold up way better in rough field conditions as well and will be an asset to your hunting dog. I feel there are many GWP’s with bad or really bad coats. I feel the show ring can be to blame for some of this because those dogs can be sculptured to look perfect by a great groomer, and I have seen field trial lines with very bad coats. I heard a story that while running in a national championship a dog had so many burs in its beard the handler couldn’t give it water. The handler took seven minutes out of the middle of the stake to pull burs and the dog won the championship. Field trial people don’t always think like hunters and this is what hunters don’t want to have to deal with while they are hunting. In a GWP breeding program you can greatly improve a coat in one generation, but if you don’t have a few generations of great coats in the dogs genetics bad coats will pop up like a deadbeat relative when you least expect it.
I have had some people tell me how great their GWP hunting dog was, but they couldn’t hunt it with other dogs because it was dog aggressive. Nothing will ruin a hunting trip faster than having one dog go after one of the other hunter’s dogs. There is nothing about a GWP that is aggressive towards another dog, or human that makes that dog a great hunting dog. The only time I feel an aggressive dog would be a good hunting dog is if it was hunting something that could kill it like bears or mountain lions. I don’t think GWP’s were ever bred to be lion or bear dogs. My brother used to run bears and mountain lions with hounds, and he told me sometimes the best dogs were the ones that we so aggressive most of the time you were scared to get near them, or turn them loose with other dogs unless you turned them loose on a hot trial. He also said they were not good for anything else except going after lions or bears. A good GWP hunting dog needs to be able to live with other dogs, and people without any temperament issues. Even a hunter like me who might hunt 150 days a year has over 200 days when the dog won’t be hunting and needs to be a good pet. When I first got into the GWP’s I was involved in the German Shorthaired Pointer Club of Idaho. The club had members with many pointing breeds, but very few GWP’s and when I showed up to one of the summer training sessions with a GWP many of the people were hesitant to welcome me. I found out later that there had been many times a GWP had caused issues because of the temperaments. Temperaments are just like coats and will show when you least expect it, but sometimes they are hidden for a few generations, and hard to notice.
The size of the dog is something everyone seems to have an opinion about as well. I have had lots of people tell me big dogs can’t run a long time and break down faster than smaller dogs. I would say big dogs with poor conformation would break down sooner. The best hunting dogs I have ever hunted with have been larger dogs both male and female. I have not seen the lack of endurance, and actually they seem to have more when you get 4-6 hours into the hunt especially in the thick stuff. The more I learn about the Canadian wolf the more I think they might be the best canine hunter. A Canadian wolf is very large, but they have incredible endurance and they can also sprint very fast when needed. Of course the wolves are great hunters as well or they would die of starvation.
Most people don’t know good structure from bad structure in a dog, but bad structure slows hunting dogs down faster than anything except lack of drive or desire which in some cases may be a product of bad structure. The more athletic the more hours a dog will be able to run and hunt hard.
A GWP must be a good swimmer to be a good hunting dog.
Another thing that is overlooked in evaluating hunting dogs is being kennel blind. I think every breeder is somewhat kennel blind and think they are breeding the best dogs alive, but EVERY dog has faults in hunting abilities. If I were to hunt any dog for any time I could find some faults in the dog. Some breeders are forthcoming with any issues that might be present in their dogs, while others can ignore obvious major faults to the point they are delusional about their breeding program. I have seen GWP breeders with very poor coated dogs, that didn’t naturally retrieve, but won at field trials be really proud of those dogs. If a breeder can not tell you the strengths and weakness of a dog in the field they have not hunted it enough, or are not accepting it’s faults. Every dog has stronger points and weaker in the field. I tend to be pretty critical of my own dogs and rarely do I have someone tell me something positive or negative about one of my dogs that I don’t already know. I think some breeders just take it way too personal, but if someone says something about one of my dogs I just file it into the information bucket on that dog. I do think it is important to spend time hunting with other people and dogs just to get more information about dogs. The testing and field trials offer a look at other dogs and how other people deal with their dogs which can help you to maybe not overlook issues, both positive and negative in your own dogs. Having judged many different pointing breeds in field trials and hunt test I have a more rounded understanding of dogs and dog trainers. I have used this knowledge to evaluate my dogs while hunting.
Along the lines of kennel blind is what I call owner blind where they think their dog is perfect for whatever reason. This isn’t and issue because these owners probably aren’t breeding dogs, but it can get annoying if you are a hunting buddy listening to somebody talk about how great their dog is all day long. Other owners having unreal expectations of a dog. Some people look at dogs as a machine, and have a hard time understanding how come they are not perfect.
Everyone is different and every dog is different. Enjoy your dog for what it is and if it happens to be one of the truly great hunting dogs that is awesome, but most likely it is similar to all of us and falls somewhere in the middle of the bell curve with some strengths and weaknesses.