First, the bad news: There's a storm on the horizon, and we are not doing enough to prepare for it.
Now, the good news: We've weathered a similar storm before and not only did we survive, the storm gave birth to our modern pointing dogs.
When Edward Laverack, the father of the modern English setter was born in 1800, there were no breed clubs, breed standards, canine registries, field trials or dog shows. There were no trains, automobiles, telephones or photographs. Even the postal system had yet to be fully developed, and medicine was only just emerging from the dark ages. But when Laverack died in 1872, the entire world had changed. The latest news travelled across the country in minutes thanks to the newly developed telegraph and a booming mass media. People and their dogs could travel by train from one end of England to the other in a single day and take a steamship to cross the Atlantic in less than a week.
The men and women of Laverack's day lived through a series of seismic cultural shifts brought on by massive technological advances. And in the midst of it all, they created the modern pointing dog. And now, a century and a half later we too are living through a similar period of upheaval. The main difference is that we have infinitely more information at our fingertips and infinitely more resources at our disposal to face the challenges.
So why are so many of our pointing breeds in such bad shape? What the hell are we doing wrong? In the section below, I will do my best to outline my views on some of the more pressing problems facing our pointing breeds today. I will also offer possible solutions that may be considered by breeders, breed clubs and registries. NB: If you are wondering why I feel qualified to provide these observations and solutions see the notes section at the end of the article.
PROBLEM: We have a love/hate relationship with technology. Today's hunters and breeders are a curious bunch. On the one hand, they love reaping the benefits of certain forms of technology. They have no problem using their car's GPS to guide them to the field, their smart-phone to share photos of the hunt with friends 1000 miles away and a tracking collar hooked up to billion-dollar satellite to follow their dogs. But when it comes to breeding their dogs, many are stuck in a time-warp. They cling to long-debunked victorian-age notions regarding ‘pure’ blood and rail against anyone who dares suggest they modernize their approach. They are sceptical of the benefits of simple, inexpensive health tests, or too cheap to pay for them. And far too many breeders fail to keep up with the rapid advances announced almost daily in the field of genetics, even though they can access vast libraries of information on their smart phone and take entire courses in canine genetics and breeding strategies from the comfort in their living room!
SOLUTION: Follow the example of the creators of our pointing breeds and embrace the latest advances in technology. Our breeds are living, breathing members of our families, not taxidermied relics of a bygone era. Of course, we should honour their history and never lose sight of their original design and purpose, but we have to stop clinging to outdated, long-debunked ideas. We must let the results of scientific health tests, performance testing and open competition in the field guide our breeding decisions. Above all, we need to make use of the knowledge we've gained over the last 100 years to address the main issues facing our breeds today.
For example, many pointing breeds could benefit from an official, multi-generation outcross program based on rational, scientific principles. Such a program would increase genetic diversity and go a long way towards lowering the risk and rates of various health issues that are on the rise. Breeders of Irish Red and White Setter began such a program several years ago and are now seeing excellent results.
Among the French breeds, there have been a handful of approved crosses in the past, and many more unapproved, unofficial crosses usually carried out by individuals or small groups of breeders seeking short-term gains. And while some of the crosses have been beneficial, others have led to problems. Nevertheless, today across the dog world, there is a growing chorus of calls urging breeders and breed clubs to consider science-based outcross programs for vulnerable breeds. There are several online and offline groups promoting the idea and exchanging information. One such group on Facebook "Outcross for Life" has nearly 2000 members from around the world. It Is "...dedicated to outcross projects and crossbreeding efforts that are done in order to improve a breed’s health. In some cases, they are done to help a breed survive. The group focuses on serious and thoughtful breeding efforts, whether they be (official) outcross programs or individual projects. This group welcomes everybody, from outcross enthusiasts to outcross sceptics who wish to learn more about the subject matter and ongoing efforts that are happening as we speak."
One of the most valuable resources available to breeders and breed clubs today is the Institute for Canine Biology website. They offer courses and workshops on a host of topics such as Managing Genetics for the Future, Genetics of Behaviour and Performance and Strategies for Preservation Breeding. Recently the ICB announced the ICB BREEDER TOOL, “… a revolutionary new resource for the responsible, preservation breeder that will improve the health of dogs and protect the quality of the gene pool for the future.” that “… brings cutting-edge science, modern DNA technology, and sophisticated analysis tools to your breeding program to support management of health and genetic disorders.”
BOTTOM LINE: Until and unless breeders and breed clubs drag themselves into the 21st century and use the power of technology, we will continue to see a decline in quantity and quality of our pointing dog breeds. In fact, entire breeds will disappear if we don't get with the times.
PROBLEM: Our communication skills suck. Nowadays, we can create a website in minutes and run it for pennies a day (or even free), and we can contact just about anyone, anywhere, in a blink of an eye with a smartphone or computer. But despite the ability to tell the entire world about their latest litter of pups, or that their club welcomes new members, it is not uncommon to hear breeders whining about a 'lack of demand' for their pups and breed clubs belly-aching about declining membership.
But somehow our forefathers created the entire pointing dog world with nothing more than a pen, paper, snail-mail and print ads in newspapers. Can you imagine what they could have done if they had the internet, telephones, jet travel and digital photos back in the day? Yet here we are, in 2018 and many breeders still have no online presence, or if they do, it is the equivalent of a hand-written note with "Dawg for Sale" posted on a telephone pole outside the local pub. Time and again I see breeders that have obviously spent no more than a few minutes filling out forms on classified ad sites to post fuzzy photos of fuzzy puppies with a fuzzy description like "male Braque for sale, eight weeks old, call me”.
Many breed clubs are no better. Their poorly-designed, rarely-updated websites are usually hosted by 'free' service providers that pay their bills by bombarding visitors with pop-up ads for online gambling and boner pills. No wonder there is little demand for pups and declining membership in clubs. Not only do many breeders and breed clubs have clumsy, stale websites, many are not active on social media at all or, if they are, have no idea how to harness its power. I’ve seen club members and even club presidents commit some of the most egregious errors in basic public relations on Facebook by posting vicious diatribes, passive aggressive-missives and mounds of bullshit to win personal arguments or to settle ancient scores.
SOLUTION: Wake up and smell the f’ing coffee. This is 2018, not 1918. You need a GOOD website, and you have to know how to use social media. The only thing worse than not having a website is having a terrible website that you haven't updated in years. It has the same effect on potential purchasers as having tattered kennels that you haven't cleaned in years. It screams "I don't give a shit". And I must say that some of the worst offenders in this regard are in France. Many French breeders don't even have websites and most that do, use platforms with terrible functionality, especially on mobile phones. Fortunately, websites today are inexpensive and easy to create and maintain. Check out Squarespace, Weebly or Wix. You can have a website up and running in an hour or two and maintain it for pennies a day.
BOTTOM LINE: Get your online act together, or fail. It is that simple.
PROBLEM: We live in bubbles. One of the most significant issues that rare breeds face right now is what I can only describe as a kind of ghettoisation, a lingering effect of poor decisions made 100 years ago. Before 1907, all the longhaired pointing breeds from France were classified as Epagneuls de France. Everyone knew that they were all variations on the same underlying theme; the old Epagneul Francais, but, as Jean Castaing wrote "colour mania took over" and the various colour varieties were separated into stand-alone breeds. Today, even though we live in an increasingly connected world, our breeds and breed clubs even more divided than they were 100 years ago and instead of trying to find common ground, many are seeking to sub-divide them into smaller and smaller isolated gene pools.
SOLUTION: Build bridges, not walls. In France, there is a club, union, or association for everything from chess to cheese. In the dog world, there is a national kennel club (SCC), numerous regional clubs, breed clubs and even newly-formed 'enthusiasts clubs' (reunions d'amateurs) for some breeds. So there must be some sort of umbrella club for all the French pointing breeds, right? Yes, there is.. in Germany.
German and Austrian owners of French pointing breeds joined forces way back in the 1980s to support one another, hold tests and trials and to promote French pointing breeds among local hunters. But in France, there is no such organization and, as far as I can tell, there has never been any effort to form one. So no matter how big or small the breed, in France, all the Braques, épagneuls and griffons are basically on their own to compete against foreign pointing breeds without any support whatsoever from their French brothers and sisters.
So why not create a similar organization in France? The French could, in fact, form an international club or alliance, headquartered in France, with branches in other countries around the world. In Canada and the US, there are already clubs for the Breton, Braque Francais, Korthals Griffon, French Spaniel, Picardy Spaniel and Braque du Bourbonnais. Why not encourage those clubs to join forces with a parent club in France that can help them maintain and improve those breeds?
Such a system would be especially beneficial to the rare French breeds that must, if they wish to confront the challenges they are facing today, look beyond the confines of their own small region, and beyond the borders of France. Finding allies in other countries, planting seeds in other fertile fields will ensure their future. But it should not be done as it is being done today by just sending pups overseas and then forgetting about them. It is vital that the French play a leading role in the management of the breeds outside their borders, by offering a guidance, assistance and access to judges, tests, trials and registries.
In Part Two I demonstrated that a few of the rare French breeds had actually increased their numbers over the last ten years or so while most of the others declined. Searching for a possible explanation, I went back to the notes I made about those breeds when I was first researching them for my book. Reading them today, I noticed that while a lot of the information on the Saint Usuge Spaniel, the Blue Picardy and the Picardy Spaniel was gathered from sources in France, I was also able to find breeders and owners of those dogs outside of France. I even photographed Blue Picardies just outside of Calgary, Alberta right here in Canada.
That was not the case for the Braque Saint Germain, the Braque de l'Ariège and the Pont-Audemer Spaniel. Those breeds were only found in France, and even there, the numbers were minuscule. Looking even closer at just two breeds, the Blue Picardy Spaniel and the Picardy, we can see that when a breed gains ground outside of France, its number also rise in France. And when it declines outside of France, it also declines inside of France. The Blue Picardy made considerable gains in France in the 1990s. And during the same period, it grew by leaps and bounds in North America. The Blue even gained the official recognition of the Canadian Kennel Club. The breed then levelled off in the 2000s and, by 2016, was overtaken by the Picardy. Once again, the trend in France is being echoed elsewhere. Blues are on the wane as Picardies gain ground.
I believe that many of the issues faced by the rare French breeds today can be addressed by helping them take root in the fertile soils that exist in other countries. Some of the rare French breeds are in dire need of a sort of international 'défence' like the one that saved French grape vines from disappearing during the Great French Wine Blight of late 1800's.
PROBLEM: The cumbersome structure and narrow-mindedness of traditional breed clubs and registries may lead to their demise. Breed clubs and breed registries were created over a century ago. Their primary function was to organize events and to collect, collate and share information, on paper, via snail mail. Breed clubs and registries still do that today. But how many of them are adapting to the times? How many breed clubs publish same-day results of events? How many offer online access to their records? How many release an online version of their magazine? The numbers are depressingly low, and it is one of the main reasons they are in decline. If I want to know the results of an event, anywhere in the world, chances are, I can have them within hours, if not minutes, via Facebook or Twitter. It is now possible to watch an event in real time if someone there is live-streaming it. And if I want to dig into the background of a dog, I can usually do so in an instant via a number of free online pedigree databases. So why do I need to consult the club? Why do I need to wait for weeks or months to get the magazine in the mail that posts results and photos from events that occurred weeks or months ago?
SOLUTION: Change clubs/registries from within and/or develop alternatives. Membership numbers for established clubs like the AKC have been declining since the late 1990s and now seem to be in free fall. Traditional forms of field trials are also having a hard time gaining new members and an even harder time finding grounds to run on.
On the other hand, non-competitive hunt-test organizations like NAVHDA are attracting more newcomers every year. Also, over last decade or so breeder alliances have been formed for the Pudelpointer, German Wirehaired Pointer, Weimaraner, Picardy Spaniel and Korthals Griffon. Unlike traditional breed clubs, alliances can focus like a laser on the essential part of their mission: getting good hunting dogs in the hands of dedicated hunters. In France, a similar trend seems to be developing. There is already an alternative association, outside the mainstream breed club for the Épagneul Francais and it looks like others may soon follow for other breeds.
BOTTOM LINE: We must throw off the victorian-age blinders that restrict us to only one vision of what a breed club is and does. And with that in mind, I would like to make a proposal to all breeders and breed clubs that support the French pointing breeds: Unite! Work toward developing national and international associations or alliances to promote the free exchange of information between breeders and supporters of the French pointing breeds around the world.
Here in North America, for example, there are clubs for the Braque du Bourbonnais, Braque Français, Épagneul Francais, Korthals Griffon, Picardy Spaniel, Blue Picardy Spaniel and Épagneul Breton (French Brittany), but the level of communication and coordination among them is close to zero. Each club is on its own to promote their dogs to North American hunters and to organize meetings, tests and trials with or without the support of the breed’s parent club in France.
Why not join forces to, at the very least, offer each other support? How many native French speakers are in each club? How many members have connections, official or not, with the parent club in France? How many clubs can afford to bring judges over from France to evaluate their dogs or to send members to France to learn more about the breed and to establish or improve relationships with breeders in the native land?
A united effort could benefit all member groups and individuals. Bilingual breeders of one breed could help others with another breed overcome language barriers. Larger, stronger clubs could help smaller clubs coordinate education events for the members or help them organize exchange visits for judges and others between North American and France. A unified group could sponsor events at which French judges could evaluate a number of different breeds for conformation and field abilities.
Even in France itself, I would encourage clubs and breeders to join forces to help preserve and improve their native pointing breeds. Over the last 250 years, more pointing dog breeds have been developed in France than any other country on earth. But today, the French are falling further and further even as breeds from other countries gain ground across the world. So far, the most common reaction to this decline among the French is to stick their heads deeper in the sand of denial or bicker amongst themselves as they fight for a piece of an ever-shrinking pie. Fortunately, some are sounding the alarm and taking action. The French Kennel Club (SCC) has recently updated their website and are now providing a higher level of support and transparency for breeders through their LOF Select online tool for pedigree information. I have also heard that one or two groups dedicated to the preservation of specific French pointing breeds are currently in the planning stages. Hopefully, they will see the light of day in 2019.
Lovers of French pointing breeds wake up! A treasure trove of precious pointing breeds created by the French is being squandered in its homeland due to complacency, pessimism and outright neglect. But it is not too late. If we join forces and embrace the technology we have at our disposal we can meet the challenges of today and restore those breeds to their rightful position as the Crown Jewels of the gun dog world.
1. When the painting above, A Burial At Ornans (French: Un Enterrement à Ornans) by Gustave Courbet was first shown around 1850, it marked one of the major turning points of 19th-century French art.
2. Full Disclosure: I have only owned and hunt-tested a handful of dogs in my life, and I have never bred a litter of pups. I've never been on the board of any breed club, and when it comes to training and handling dogs, I am barely mediocre...on a good day. I do however have a unique perspective on the world of pointing dogs, and in particular, on the French pointing breeds. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I may be the only person around to have observed every breed of continental pointing dog on the planet, in their native land. I've also had the privilege of spending time with true breed experts who dedicated decades of their lives to breeding, training and hunting with them. I've met and interviewed breeders like Michel Compt, the modern father of the Braque du Bourbonnais and Carlos Contera, the saviour of the Pachon Navarro. I spent time with the late Serge Bey who was the protégé of L'Abée Billard, the father of Saint Usuge Spaniel. I've hunted over Braques de L'Ariege bred by Jean-François Behro, the former president of the club and one of the key players in the effort to revive the breed. I've spent hundreds of hours talking dogs with Xavier Thibault, an outspoken supporter of the working Braque Saint Germain and visited with Jean-Paul Oustrain, one of the few breeders of Gascony Type Braque Français left in the world.
I've been writing about pointing dogs for over 25 years. Many of my articles and photos have appeared in the sporting press in North America and Europe. My most recent project was an English language translation of Il Bracco Nobile, a book about the Bracco Italiano written by the breed's most influential breeder, Cesare Bonasegale. In 2011, my book Ponting Dogs, Volume One: The Continentals was published. Volume Two: the British and Irish Pointing Breeds is scheduled for publication in 2019. When I am not writing about pointing dogs, I'm helping hunters find pups from some of the rarest breeds and helped them find a rare 'good one' in super-popular breeds dominated by show lines. I've hunted over a half dozen Pont-Audemer Spaniels and owned one for 14 years. I now hunt over a Picardy Spaniel and have created a North American Alliance for the breed. I've even participated, albeit indirectly, in three outcross programs for rare pointing breeds on the verge of extinction and have followed with great interest several others.
Enjoy my blog posts? Check out my book: Pointing Dogs, Volume One: The Continentals