In Praise of Little Dogs
September 28, 2010
It seems that big hounds are always popular with hunters, but there are times when a small dog is a better choice. Here are four little guys that can get the job done!
Dr. Bo Ackerman's Brittany, Winchester of Hanging Jaze, is a good example of the breed. "Chester" is also a two-time National Gun Dog Champion! Photo courtesy of Dr. Bo Ackerman
By Carolee Boyles
Mention hunting dogs, and hunters wax eloquent about big dogs like golden and Labrador retrievers, English pointers or German shorthairs. But hunting dogs don't need to weigh 70 pounds to be effective. Smaller dogs not only are just as good at hunting as larger dogs, but they are also sometimes a better choice.
If there's any one description you can apply to all small sporting dogs, it is "versatile." Each one of them has a specialty, but any can be trained to do multiple kinds of hunting if you so desire.
BEAGLE Is there any small hunting dog better known or better loved than the beagle? They were first documented as a breed during the reign of Elizabeth I in the 16th century, although those dogs are said to have been so small that they could fit into a glove. By the time of William III, who reigned from 1689 to 1702, the beagle was well established as a hunting breed. Along the way, the miniature form died out and the larger beagles we know today came into fashion.
Beagles have been in the United States since the 1890s and have been used to hunt everything from rabbits to deer. Their name seems to have come from the Celtic word "beagle," which means "small."
Dennis Van Amburg owns Van's Beagles and has been involved with the breed for more than 30 years. He says beagles are hardy, bold little hounds that are adapted for running through thick briars, habitat where rabbits like to hang out.
"Briars can't penetrate to their skin, because they have two coats of hair," Van Amburg explains. "They have longer hair on top, and once you get down next to the skin they have a really dense, heavier coat."
The beagle belongs to the group known as scent hounds, which means they do the bulk of their hunting with their noses.
"Most of my dogs I use for rabbit hunting," Van Amburg says. "But they're good for a lot of things. Pest control companies take really little beagles and train them to sniff out termites. Dogs like that may sell for six or seven thousand dollars."
Beagles also make excellent deer and fox hounds, although Van Amburg says they don't do too well on raccoons.
"They're really good-natured dogs," Van Amburg assures. "They make great show dogs, wonderful hunting companions and field event dogs, and they make a great companion and pet at home. They're an all-around great dog."
Beagles are divided into two size classes, although these aren't distinct sub-breeds. Dogs of both sizes may occur in a single litter.
"There's a 13-inch dog and a 15-inch dog," Van Amburg says. "The smaller dog is usually 20 pounds and under, and the larger one runs from about 20 to 30 pounds. You can have a litter where both parents are 13-inch dogs, and one or more of the pups will be a 15-inch dog."
According to Van Amburg, coat color also is unpredictable.
"You can get all colors in any litter," he notes. "There are blue ticks, red and white, chocolate, lemon, and tri-color or typical beagles."
For Van Amburg, the very best thing about beagles is their loyalty.
"Once they develop a strong bond with you, they'll do anything to please you," he says. "They listen well and they mind well. They're really loyal little dogs."
FEIST One group of dogs that is poorly understood, even by hunters, is feists. David Osborn is the author of Squirrel Dog Basics, a book that provides an overview of squirrel hunting and the feists that are used to hunt the critters.
According to Osborn, the feist is recognized as a breed by all the multi-breed registries, including the Canadian Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club. However, the name is also used generically to describe dogs for their specific squirrel hunting behavior.
"A feist can be a very pedigreed family of dogs that's been bred to tree squirrels for generations," Osborn says. "It also can be a full-blooded rat terrier, as long as it meets the size and coat characteristics for a treeing feist."
Breeds such as rat terriers and smooth-haired fox terriers can be cross-registered as feists, and some crosses between recognized full-breed dogs can be registered as feists also.
"There's a lot of controversy about all this," Osborn continues. "Some people believe that these dogs come from the old-time feists that the Native Americans had. Other people say European terriers were the primary influence in their ancestry. In my opinion, they're dogs that were carried down through the generations because of their function and utility, and they very likely have many different breeds in their ancestry."
Although today's feists are primarily used for hunting squirrels, they can be very versatile dogs.
"Until the 1950s or so, most rural homes had these small multi-purpose dogs," Osborn says. "They might have been used to keep predators from killing th
e yard chickens, or to protect the home from intruders. Also, their owners might take them out and tree squirrels, possums and even raccoons. Today, many family lines of feists have been specifically bred to be squirrel dogs."
The common thread, however, is that feists are very small dogs.
"Dogs of either sex can't weigh more than 30 pounds," Osborn points out. "Males can't be more than 18 inches, and females can't be more than 17 inches. But some of the registries vary a bit from that."
Most registries include some measure of function as well. For instance, an official of the registry must have actually seen the feist treeing a squirrel or raccoon. That part of the breed standard makes the feist unique among hunting dogs.
A feist's suitability as a house dog and pet varies tremendously depending on which family line the dog comes from.
"They're happiest when they're family members," Osborn says. "But some family lines make better pets than others, just because some family lines are so excitable that they try your patience a bit as a pet. Other family lines are very content lying on the couch with you."
The ideal feist, Osborn contends, stays with its hunter on the way into the woods.
"I have my dog on a leash," Osborn says. "Then I release my dog, and he runs out and searches for a squirrel. How far he goes to look for a squirrel differs. Some handlers don't like their dogs to get out of sight. Other handlers want their dogs to go wherever they need to go to find a squirrel. If they can't find a squirrel where they went, they check back to see what the handler wants them to do. There's a tremendous amount of variation in terms of hunting behaviors and hunting styles."
Once a dog locates a squirrel scent trail on the ground, Osborn continues, it follows that scent to a tree and uses its eyes and ears to try to locate the animal.
"Once they locate a squirrel, then it's their job to stay at that tree and bark until the handler gets there," Osborn concludes.
BRITTANY Don't call a Brittany a spaniel; any Brittany owner within earshot will be quick to correct you.
"They're not spaniels," says Dr. Bo Ackerman, a member of the Board of Directors of the American Brittany Club, who has raised and trained three national champions, as well as the current Iams pet food company's Brittany All Age Dog of the Year. "In 1980, the American Brittany Club asked the American Kennel Club (AKC), and the AKC agreed, to drop the name 'spaniel' from the Brittany. The reason is that the word spaniel has the connotation of being a flushing dog. The Brittany is a pointing dog."
Brittanies originally were developed in France and take their name from the Brittany region there.
"They needed a versatile dog they could hunt feather and fur with," Ackerman explains. "They could afford one dog, so that one dog needed to be able to do everything - retrieve ducks, hunt upland game birds, hunt rabbits, that kind of thing."
The story goes that tail-docking (cutting the tail off the dog soon after birth) began because the enthusiasm of the Brittany's tail gave their position away.
"The land was all owned by noblemen, and they reserved all the rights to the game on their land," Ackerman says. "The peasants were all starving, and they hunted game to keep themselves and their families alive. They started docking tails so the dogs wouldn't have a long tail sticking up in the cover and be more easily spotted by the noblemen."
The first Brittanies made it to American shores in the 1940s. Those dogs were not as long from front to back, and were a little shorter and wider in stature than they are today.
"We've Americanized the breed, and they've become a little more lanky, with a little shorter coat," Ackerman points out. "They're longer in the back now and have a more refined head."
Today, there are two distinctly different Brittanies, the French Brittany and the American Brittany. An American Brittany can be orange and white or liver and white; a few are a combination of the two colors, but they're never dark or black. The breed standard calls for a dog between 17 1/2 and 20 1/2 inches tall and between 30 and 40 pounds.
"The French Brittany is a smaller dog," Ackerman says. "Its average weight is probably in the mid-20s, and it can have a darker coat and a black nose, and is a closer-working dog. In the AKC-recognized registry of American Brittanies, black is a disqualification for being a show champion."
Today in the United States, the Brittany is mostly used for upland game birds.
"People use them on the dove field to retrieve doves, and they can retrieve ducks," Ackerman adds. "A Canada goose can be a challenge to a Brittany, but a Brittany can handle a puddle duck or a small migratory duck. They're also happy to run deer and chase rabbits if you let them get away with it. We work pretty hard to convince them to stick to upland game birds."
The old stereotype of a Brittany as a close-working, foot-handled hunting dog isn't accurate any more, Ackerman says.
"You can train them to be whatever you want them to be," he says. "But horseback field-trial Brittanies run every bit as big and wide as the biggest pointer. They run on the same grounds that the big pointer trials run on, and they do the same things the big pointers do."
The only real difference between a Brittany and a pointer in that regard is stamina.
"A pointer can be in a dead sprint for three hours," Ackerman notes. "A Brittany can only do it for an hour. It just doesn't quite have that stamina."
On the other hand, it is possible to take any of his field-trial dogs to the woods and hunt woodcock or other close-in birds with them.
"The advantage to them is their versatility," he says. "They're happy to be your pet, to travel with you, to sleep in your bed. But then you can woodcock hunt with the same dog you hunt on the prairie with."
BOYKIN SPANIEL Many people's first impression of a Boykin spaniel is of a compact chocolate Labrador retriever with a curly or wavy coat. Or maybe of a cocker spaniel crossed with an Irish setter. Since Boykin spaniels are not terribly common, and are a relatively young breed on the hunting scene, even longtime bird hunters often don't recognize a Boykin right away.
Pamela Kadlec owns Just Ducky Kennel and is a professional trainer who specializes in Boykins for both retrieving and upland work. She's spent so much time with the dogs that she's written a book, Retriever Training For Spaniels.
Kadlec says the history of the Boykin spaniel is somewhat shrouded in mystery. What is known is that the breed originated from a small spaniel-type dog found in Spartanburg, S.C., in the early 1900s. A banker named Alexander White rescued the little dog and took it to his friend, Whit Boykin, who was experimenting with dog breeding to create a small multi-purpose retrieving breed. Boykin trained the little stray, which became a great hunter and the foundation of the Boykin spaniel breed. Other breeds involved in the development of the Boykin were Chesapeake Bay retrievers, Springer spaniels, cocker spaniels and American water spaniels.
The Boykin Spaniel Society formed in 1977, and by 1980 it had established a breed standard and begun a registry.
"The breed standard calls for a dog with no more white than a little allowed on the chest," Kadlec explains.
A dog must be between 15 and 18 inches and must weigh 30 to 40 pounds. Bitches are smaller, at 14 to 16 1/2 inches and 25 to 35 pounds. However, since this is such a recently developed breed, there's still a lot of variability in it.
"You can find some that are over 50 pounds and more than 18 inches tall," Kadlec notes. "Another breeder may have pups that weigh in under 25 pounds and under 14 inches tall. Some Boykins make great house dogs, but others are high-maintenance dogs that require daily exercise and training."
Since its standardization, the breed has achieved recognition by the UKC and the North American Hunting Retriever Association, and it's gained in popularity across the United States.
"In 1984, opening day of dove season was named Boykin Spaniel Day," Kadlec says, beaming. "And in 1985, the Boykin was named the State Dog of South Carolina."
If the hunting ability of the Boykin could be distilled into one word, that word would be "versatile."
"Nowadays the Boykin is the perfect all-around hunting companion," Kadlec says. "He'll fetch your doves and ducks, flush and fetch your quail and pheasants, and track your wounded deer."
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