- Spaniels in the Field magazine article by Paul Fischenich
- The Pointing Dog magazine article by Larry Brown
What is the perfect dog? I’m not sure there is enough paper in the paper mill to print all the answers that could be given to that question. The good thing is that I wasn’t asking that question of everyone else… I was asking that question of myself. It’s the same question every potential dog owner should ask themselves.
All dogs are not created equal. Some dogs don’t even look like a dog. Recently I was looking in the Dog Encyclopedia and there was one dog that looked more like a monkey than a dog. This only proves that we all have our own likes and dislikes. It is just a matter of personal preference.
My problem is I like them all. At least all the hunting breeds. I might have one of each if I had enough room and time to hunt them all. However, that’s not very practical, is it. Most of us own one or two dogs. Two dog owners usually space them apart in years so that when one dog passes on there is another that is still in his or her hunting prime.
I’ve trained my own Labrador Retrievers and Wirehaired Pointers for around twenty years. However, there always seemed to be something missing. I loved my labs but I also like hunting over a point. So after my last yellow lab “Harriet” went to the “Happy hunting grounds in the sky”, I tried Wirehaired pointers. It wasn’t a good fit. They were great hunters but the ones I owned had temperament problems. They were a bit ornery and I didn’t trust them.
So back to the drawing board. I continued to hunt with my Wirehairs because they were the only dogs I had. However the time had come when I had to sit down and really decide what I wanted in a hunting dog and companion. I started researching the internet, dog books and magazines. This research was an endeavor of love. I can’t think of anything I enjoy more than reading about dogs.
I made a list of what qualities I wanted in my “Prototype Dog”.
- No matter what dog I chose it had to be a good family dog . It was a must that it be good with kids.
- I have always loved the physical characteristics of a Springer Spaniel. So it would be nice if it had some Spaniel attributes.
- The dog would have to work close like a spaniel or a lab. No dot in the distance for me.
- I would like this dog’s hunting speed to be somewhere between a plodder and a sprinter. Just work at a steady comfortable hunting pace.
- This dog’s medium size would make it easy to live with in the house or easy to lift over a fence when hunting.
- This dog would also have to point out its quarry.
Finally, while reading the Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Dogs, I came across a dog that really caught my eye. Dog number 223 was a French Spaniel or Epagneul Francais if you are saying it in French. The colorful picture of this beautiful dog immediately made me curious. I had to read on. The description given in the book was basically everything that I had written on my wish list. One downfall was that the book said that they were not common outside of France. Seeing that I didn’t have any contacts in France, hopes off getting a French Spaniel faded away.
The French Spaniel resembles a Springer Spaniel in many ways. It has that irresistibly adorable spaniel face and puppy dog eyes that just melt your heart. It is somewhere between 21 – 24 inches tall and weighs 44 – 55 lbs. Along with the Irish Water Spaniel the French Spaniel is recognized as the largest of the Spaniel breeds. The colors are always liver and white. The coat is flat and short with some feathering. Unlike most Spaniels the tail is not docked. The tail is long with setter like features .
The French Spaniel is one of the oldest spaniels, originating in France as early as the 1300’s. Early 17th century paintings done by Desportes and Oudry depict the French Spaniel hunting partridges in Versailles. In the 19th century the dog was almost extinct. A French priest gathered the remaining French spaniels in his Saint-Hillaire kennels. Here he rebuilt the lineages that are the representatives of those we now have. Some theorize that outcrosses of the French Spaniel make it the cousin of the Small Munsterlander (Germany) and the Drentse Patrijshond (Holland). It is also thought that the French Spaniel is the forerunner of the modern setter.
Its primary use was as a setting dog, freezing or pointing as soon as it scented feathered game. In those days hunters used nets instead of guns. The hunter would throw out a weighted net and catch the birds alive. The dog’s body would be in a low position with an elongated tail to make it easier to throw the net over the dog. It was a much different pointing style than that of today’s high tailed American bred pointing dogs. That high tail would have been frowned upon as it would have gotten in the way of the nets. Many of the modern dogs with more direct European Ancestry still point with the low tail.
The webmaster of the Breed club describes the Frenchy as a calm, methodical hunter who hunts at a moderate pace. It sweeps the area clean before moving on. It adapts well to any terrain, plains, woods, swamps , brambles and cold water. It can hunt any type of game. Although most owners of the French Spaniel hunt grouse, woodcock, pheasant or ducks. One French Spaniel breeder knew of someone whose Frenchy demonstrated its toughness by hunting geese .
It wasn’t until two years later that I saw an ad for French Spaniel pups in Gun Dog magazine. I talked to my wife and in about 5 minutes I was on the phone to Quebec, Canada. It turns out that Quebec was another stronghold of these dogs. It makes sense when one figures Quebec’s connection with France. The French Spaniel was first brought to Canada in 1974 and was given official CKC recognition in 1985. At this time the AKC does not recognize the French Spaniel. The Frenchy is not wide spread in the United States. Upon inquiry it is discovered there are only a handful of French Spaniel owners in the U.S.A.
I talked to the different owners of the respective breeding pair and got a good feeling. These were not some backyard breeders out to make a quick buck. They explained that they belonged to the French Spaniel Club of North America and that no member would breed a dog unless it met certain standards in confirmation, natural hunting abilities and X-rays showed no problems with the hips.
No would-be dog owner should ever buy a dog without doing a lot of research first. I gave the breeder in Quebec a strong indication that I would most likely get a pup but I continued my quest for information by sending a long list of questions to some other French Spaniel enthusiast over the internet. Predictably they all spoke highly of the dog. They emphasized the care taken in the breeding of these dogs. Scientists are just now making headway and discovering miraculous methods of cloning animals. Their goal is to reproduce a perfect specimen. French Spaniel breeders feel they have made a science of reproducing quality dogs through careful selective breeding.
I found it interesting that the breeders were careful in who they sold their dogs to. They wanted a good match. All breeders emphasized that the breed could be considered a “soft breed”. In other words if you believed in heavy handed training, you most likely would not be a good match with the French Spaniel. I was told that I just had to be patient and work with the dog and the dog would perform in time. Once again , “Don’t worry, its all in the breeding.” It may not be ready to perform at its optimum level as early as some dogs but once it learns something it doesn’t forget. I have found this to be true with my French Spaniel , “Belle”.
We all know that one of the greatest ways to develop a gun dog’s desire is with a lot of bird contacts. “Belle” started out with pen raised pigeons, quail and Chukars. She was now ready for wild birds. I had some land to hunt that was o.k. by Minnesota standards but nothing compared to the hunting in South Dakota. I’m fortunate to have lived in South Dakota and still have a lot of friends and relatives who own land in some of South Dakota’s prime pheasant hunting grounds. Getting enough wild bird contacts was not a problem. “Belle” has been lucky enough to have made four South Dakota pheasant hunting trips in about a year’s time .
Before her first trip I made sure she was properly introduced to the gun. More good dogs are ruined by folks who are so anxious to get that dog in the field that they don’t take time to undergo the sequential steps of introducing the dog to the gun. As a pup she was a little gun sensitive so I had to take it slow. Now you could shoot a cannon by her and it wouldn’t bother her.
“Belle” was a six month old pup on her first trip and she seemed just happy to be along. The first two days of the trip she didn’t hunt with any real purposeful direction. Rather she frolicked around sniffing every mouse nest, badger hole or any other natural smells she hadn’t experienced before. Toward the end of the first trip and on each subsequent hunting trip she made steady improvement. I guess what I liked best about her was the close range and the comfortable pace at which she hunted. She stayed within a very desirable range and was always checking back to see where I was. She hunted as much to please me as she did to please herself. At 1-1/2 she quartered with a quality windshield washer style and had become a reliable retriever.
She made her first point on a pheasant that two experienced German Wirehairs passed by. It wasn’t her most beautiful point. It was more like a student answering a teacher’s question when they aren’t quite sure of the answer. She wasn’t real intense. She stood her ground as if she was saying “I think this is what you want me to find”.
Belle points in a similar style as to what has already been mentioned in this article. The intensity of the point depends on the proximity of the bird. It is easy to read the dog when it is on point. For a bird that is a fair distance away she will stand rigid but with a high head and body. For that bird that is just a few feet away or right under her nose, she will be in an intense elongated stance.
Some hunters like the dogs that point with the high tail. Again it is a matter of personal preference. Personally I think the lower stance and elongated tail is much more esthetically pleasing than the high tail. When a French Spaniel hits that intense point with that long flowing tail it reminds you of those fabulous paintings of dogs long ago. It highlights the dog’s features and beauty. . . just like those paintings , one has to stop, pause and partake of this majestic scene.
The French Spaniel follows a trend when it comes to the pointing breeds. Continental breeds such as the Small Munsterlander, Large Munsterlander, Italian Spinone, Griffon, Braque Du Bourbonnais, Pudlepointer are all becoming more popular. These dogs are in demand because their natural close working hunting style has not yet been influenced by the desire of some breeders to do well in the field trialing game . The games have not gotten in the way of what the everyday hunter wants in a dog.
The French Spaniel Club of North America recognizes the fact that these dogs mature a little later than some other breeds. With that in mind they allow natural ability testing to take place 4 to 6 months later than in other pointing breed organizations such as NAVHDA (North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association). It is at that time that one can get a better judgment of the quality of the dog.
The FSC (French Spaniel Club) requires dogs to qualify in both confirmation and hunting tests in order to be certified by the club. When looking for a prospective pup make sure to get one from a dog that has gone through and done well in the French Spaniel Club test or has tested for an organization such as NAVHDA that puts the emphasis on natural ability.
There are not a lot of French Spaniel Breeders out there. Those that do breed don’t produce a lot of litters in a year. If you want one it would be a good idea to get on a waiting list. Depending on the Kennel, one can expect to pay somewhere between $500.00 and $700.00 for a quality pup. These dogs usually come with health guarantees.
When importing a dog from another country such as Canada, you may run into some delays because of rules imposed by Customs. I had to wait until my dog had the second series of shots before she could be shipped to me. I think she was 12 weeks old when we got her. I also had to pay $125.00 for shipping and $50. 00 for the kennel she arrived in . The cost of shipping can vary a great deal. It is well worth your time to check on the cheapest possible flight. Purchasing this dog is not an altogether cheap endeavor. Total costs will be between $700.00 and $1000.00 for a pup.
If I have one complaint about the French Spaniel, it could be picking burrs. Picking burrs was not a problem with my Labs or Wirehairs. I’ve learned to avoid areas of high burr concentrations unless that area also contains high bird concentrations. Then it’s worth a little extra time and effort that goes into picking those nasty burrs. If you trim the Frenchy’s hair, it will grow back just like any other spaniel that gets trimmed up for hunting season . However, I can’t bring myself to cut that beautiful coat .
The only other complaints I have can be directed at my two kids . They tend to spoil “Belle” too much. My seven year old, Emily wanted the dog to sleep in her room. So we bought a large dog pillow. We liked the way the two were bonding. It wasn’t long before Emily was inviting Belle to sleep in bed with her. My six year old son Zach is a little smuggler. He likes to slip “Belle” some tasty morsels under the table. It sure can be hard to resist those sad, begging eyes. So as I continue to train my dog, it looks like I have to continue to train my children as well.
The gentleman I bought “Belle” from had told me, “It is all in her breeding. Give her time and she will train herself”, Well, it wasn’t quite that easy but it has been a fun couple of years working with her. The French Spaniel is truly a unique dog . Mine is everything that I would ever want in a dog. We couldn’t have done better with the pick of the litter than we did in choosing Belle. She will be the matriarch of our small French Spaniel operation. Any one wanting any further information can contact the website master of the Breed Club or can check into one of the other web sites listed at the end of this article . If you want to contact me personally, I can be reached at the following address:
60445 213 Ave.
Dodge Center, MN 55927
Information in this article on the French Spaniel comes from personal experience, other French Spaniel owners and the following groups:
- The French Spaniel Club of North America
- French Spaniel Breeder – Luc Charron
Let’s talk about pointing dog breeds. We have the English setter (which, according to Spaulding Hoffhacker, is really all any of us needs), as well as the pointer, Irish and Gordon setters, Brittany, shorthair, wirehair, Weimaraner, vizsla… that’s about the extent of the relatively common breeds you see advertised in a typical issue of The Pointing Dog Journal.
Yet the current issue I’m looking at also contains ads for Irish red and white setters, French spaniels, and German longhairs. (Also pointing Labs – which, if you look in any issue of Pheasants Forever magazine and didn’t know better, you’d be convinced was the most popular breed of pointing dog in the country.)
The question that probably leaps immediately to the mind of owners of the more popular breeds listed above is: Why would anyone pick a rare breed? Surely, you can find everything you want – and then some – by choosing a dog from a more common breed. And you probably don’t even have to travel halfway across the country to see one!
I spoke with several owners of some of these rare breeds in an attempt to answer the why question, as well as to find out how they became involved with their chosen breed.
One answer I got is something we of the popular breeds don’t necessarily like to hear, but which has a certain amount of truth to it: Some people want a dog that American breeders haven’t had a chance to screw up.
For example, Irish setters used to hunt. Some still do, but not very many. You’ll see a lot more in the show ring than out chasing birds, and if you try to hunt one of the show Irish… well, let’s just say it’s a good thing they’re beautiful dogs.
That’s one end of the scale. Another example is the significant divide between show and field English setters. They scarcely look like the same breed. And the people breeding the field dogs will tell you the show crowd messed things up, while the show crowd will tell you that the field guys are breeding dogs so ugly they’d crack a mirror.
Then there is the American tendency to turn every breed of pointing dog into one that can be run in horseback trials. (To get back to the pointing Labs, although horses and I don’t get along at all, I swear I’ll ride in the gallery when they get around to having horseback Lab trials – and I don’t doubt they will, eventually.) Since we already have pointers and English setters, and since no other breed has beaten them at their game in better than a century, what’s the point of taking a whole bunch of foot-hunting European breeds and trying to make them run like a greyhound?
Of course the trial people can respond, with validity, that most of the European breeds were multipurpose dogs over there, hunting both fur and feather, at a plodding pace. Most Americans buy them to find, point, and retrieve birds exclusively; so why not breed for a faster, more stylish dog? And there is also a good bit of truth in that statement.
What I found, in talking with rare-breed owners, is that they arrived at their choice through a pretty logical process. It’s not unusual to find some who have owned one or more of the more common breeds and simply found that those dogs weren’t the right “fit” for them. In other cases, they may never have owned other pointing dogs previously, got into it more or less by accident, and have stuck with what they have because they’re happy. And some owners have rare breeds because of a connection to the country where the dogs originated.
Paul Fischenich, who has French spaniels, and my hunting partner Jim Cole, who owns a braque du Bourbonnais, both owned more common breeds before making the jump to a rare breed. Jim had two pups out of my shorthairs, but when the second one died, he simply liked the description of the braque du Bourbonnais, got curious enough about the breed to make some inquiries, and ended up buying one. It didn’t work out for Jim, but that’s a long story that has nothing to do with either the breed or the specific dog he bought.
(There are several strains of braque in France, a few of which have made it to the States. The word simply means a short-haired, dock-tailed pointing dog. For example, “un braque allemande”, or a German braque, is the French translation for German shorthair. And there’s also the bracco – same word in Italian – Italiano.)
Paul Fischenich had Labs, got interested in pointing dogs, and got into wirehairs. The ones he had were on the sharp side, and he was looking for something mellower and – with no offense meant to wirehair owners – more attractive. He heard about French spaniels, which are still quite rare in the States although fairly common in Quebec (and recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club for more than 20 years now).
His take is that the French spaniel gives him something more like the beauty of a setter, but with an easy pace and close range for the foot hunter. Paul does a lot of pheasant hunting in southeastern Minnesota, where the covers tend to be small, so he doesn’t need a real ground-burner. The result was a good fit for him. He’s had French spaniels for about 10 years now, and has been breeding them for the last several years.
Father Daniel Herlihy, a Catholic priest in New Jersey, has Irish red and white setters. He comes directly from the Old Country, where he was familiar with the dogs. He remembers his own parish priest as owning red and whites back in the ’50s and early ‘s. Thus, it isn’t hard to understand why he wanted to own them himself, here in the States.
Corey Van Donslear, in northwest Iowa, has had red and whites ever since he was a teenager. He got his first one when a breeder with a terminal illness was looking for good homes for his dogs. And Corey has never looked back. He likes their style – a fluid motion in the field with good speed – and their ability to handle the Iowa ringnecks he hunts.
The red and white is a good example of some of the problems one encounters with rare breeds. As hunters, we need dogs that are physically sound. We’re all aware of the problems with canine hip dysplasia (CHD), and to a lesser extent, elbow dysplasia – and there are other hereditary issues as well. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (www.offa.org) maintains a website that shows what percentage of individual dogs from various breeds are dysplastic. However, there aren’t enough red and whites (or braques) for them to show up on the OFA website. In cases like that, a potential buyer would be well advised to insist on seeing an OFA (or PennHip) evaluation of both sire and dam.
At the same time, we shouldn’t assume that the rarer breeds are more likely to have hereditary problems, even though they very likely have a pretty small gene pool. For example, while there are some hunting breeds with a high incidence of CHD (Clumber, Essex, and the more popular Boykin spaniels running in the 40 percent range, and Chessies and goldens at about 20 percent), pointing breeds are farther down the list. English setters, spinones – which I would have thought were fairly rare, but for which OFFA records nearly 700 evaluations – and Brittanys are at the top of the list, running between 15-17 percent. There are enough French spaniels, with about 100 evaluations, to make the list – and at about 11 percent, they are in the same range as the much more popular pointers, wirehairs, and Weimaraners.
Likewise, while English setters have an elbow dysplasia rate of about 15 percent, the spinone – the only less popular breed to make that list (the others absent because of insufficient evaluations) – has a rate of only three percent.
Thus, while prospective owners should certainly make inquiries about hereditary problems, they shouldn’t assume that a less popular breed has more genetic issues than a more popular breed.
One problem with less popular breeds, however, can be a shortage of breeding stock. In some cases, Irish red and whites have been bred to red setters. Whether this is a “problem” depends on one’s viewpoint, and on what happens in succeeding generations. If it happens too often, red and whites – and reds – will eventually merge into the same breed. And if most red and white owners are looking for something different in their dogs than are red setter owners, it can end up that neither group is well-served by the result.
Irish red and whites, like French spaniels, can be registered with the CKC. This does give someone considering a red and white the opportunity to see what’s in the background of the dog he’s purchasing. And while both the French spaniel and the Irish red and white may end up being recognized by the AKC in the near future, some owners consider this a mixed blessing. While AKC registration carries a certain cachet, the dogs may end up becoming too popular too fast – at least in the eyes of some owners of rare breed dogs. The reaction to a boom in popularity – and for some of these breeds, even a blip in popularity would likely mean that demand would exceed supply – can be unwise or even unscrupulous breeding practices.
For example, breeding Irish red and whites to red setters might suddenly become the rule rather than the exception. There can also be a tendency to pay less attention to negative health, conformation, and behavior traits – not to mention the dog’s proven ability, or lack thereof, to perform in the field.
My strong advice to those interested in rare breeds is to do your homework. You should also be aware of the fact that while we all know the price of a pup is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the overall cost of owning a dog, rare breed pups will usually cost you more than pups from the popular breeds by about double, on average. And you may have a fairly long wait before you get your pup, especially if the rare breed in question suddenly becomes more popular.
In my own case, I’ve already owned all three popular setters, as well as pointers, shorthairs, and Brittanys. It might well be that a French spaniel or Irish red and white lies somewhere in my future.