It remains the timeless debate: What breed of bird dog, from season to season, comes the closet to perfection? The question itself, innocuous in nature, has the potential to elicit some of the most feverish arguments. Online forums, whenever the topic arises, can quickly break out into the internet’s version of a barroom brawl. The discussion rivals any political discourse, as you would probably find more agreeability among a group of strangers debating who deserves the democratic or republican nomination.
A good dog is the most important piece of equipment in any hunter’s arsenal. For many dog owners, breed choice is a religion—a far cry from simply pointing a finger inside a dog kennel. As the weather changes and dogs chase one species after another—from pointing opening day roosters to retrieving geese in frigid December water—owners of the German wirehaired pointer proudly proclaim: this dog does it all.
A variety of breeds contributed to the bloodline of today’s German wirehaired pointer. Germans, in the late 1800s, sought to breed a versatile dog that could not only hunt all birds and small game, but also track and potentially dispatch larger creatures like foxes or wild boars. They also wished the dog to possess a sturdy coat that was both easy to maintain and capable of enduring the harsh conditions of heavy winter cover and cold water. They bred together griffons, foxhounds, poodles and both rough-haired and shorthaired pointers, among others. Germans expected this new breed to be able to press its nose to the dirt and locate everything from the tamest hare to the most ferocious wildcat, then stand fearless and resolute, hackles raised, toe-to-toe with that snarling feline.
The breed was called the “Drahthaar” (pronounced “DROT-Har,” meaning “wirehair”), and a German breed club was established in 1902. During and following two world wars, the breed came to American via the company of German immigrants and U.S. servicemen. The “German wirehaired pointer” was first recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1959, and the German Wirehaired Pointer Club of America (GWPCA) was formed that same year, though the Verein Deutsch Drahthaar (VDD), meaning “German wirehair club,” remains the breed’s parent club in Germany.
Today, there are two VDD-affiliated clubs here in North America—the VDD Group North America and the VDD Group Canada. Breeding restrictions and hunting evaluations differ between VDD clubs and all other organizations currently registering German wirehaired pointers. To differentiate the two breeds, dogs bred according to VDD standards are still called Drahthaars, while dogs bred outside those standards are simply called German wirehaired pointers.
After the inclusion of the German wirehaired pointer in the AKC’s Registry, American bird hunters came to quickly recognize the breed’s versatility and adaptability in various hunting conditions. To better accommodate their needs, hunters and breeders solely concerned with upland birds and waterfowl sought to temper the breed’s fur drive with feathers and instill in their dogs a stronger appreciation for wind-orientation and hunting with their noses up, as some traditional German wirehairs were inclined to hunt with their noses down, due to the bloodhound present in their genetics. Additionally, breeders and trainers sought to formulate a stronger focus on the retrieve, as opposed to the tenacity necessary to single-handedly dispatch game.
The North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association (NAVHDA) was formed in 1969 to evaluate hunting dogs according to North American practices, as opposed to traditional European hunting methods. Since then, many hunters have looked to NAVHDA and AKC to assess a German wirehaired pointer’s pedigree and, in turn, find the best hunting dog that fits the hunter’s needs—both in the field and at home, with family.
Jay Martin, owner of Hard Point Kennel in Glenwood, Minnesota, and proud papa of 10 German wirehaired pointers, has been breeding GWPs for over 11 years. Each year, Martin takes his dogs and spends a few months in South Dakota serving as a hunting guide through Dakota River Ranch.
“First and foremost, they’re very durable in the field and act very professionally around my clientele,” explained Martin, who, as a professional hunter, appreciates the GWP’s versatility and endurance—from going waterfowl hunting in the morning to pheasant hunting in the afternoon. “I need that dog to be able to last, then hunt consecutive days in a row, at the same time, but also have the right personality to handle the stress and still have fun.”
With a tight wiry coat that sheds water quickly and an inner coat to keep warm, the GWP is well suited for extended swims in cold water. Their immense amount of endurance and medium- to large-sized stature enables them to carry even the largest geese back to the boat. An incredible sense of smell means they will be able to track wounded waterfowl even if the bird sails as far as a quarter mile. That same nose allows them to locate and hold tight on point for upland game—anything from quail to late-season roosters to ruffed grouse—while their dense coat protects them from any nicks and scrapes that are possible during romps through dense cover and forests.
However, both density and color of a GWP’s coat can vary, so potential owners are encouraged to do their homework when picking a dog. While many GWPs possess brown or liver-colored coats, some may even have black and or white coats. The prevalence of white coloring, often considered desirable in GWPs, is typically viewed as an American innovation within the breed. Facial “furniture,” composed of bushy eyebrows and the canine equivalent of a beard or mustache, helps protect the dog’s face and eyes from injury, but can also vary. From a home perspective, a GWP’s coat sheds very little and is hypoallergenic.
Terry Wilson, manager of Ugly Dog Hunting Company
, has hunted over GWPs for over 17 years and currently owns two—Rudder and Tank—and a German shorthaired pointer, Scratch. Aside from physically examining a puppy’s hips, teeth and eyes, he suggests closely evaluating the dog’s coat. “You want a very tight, tight coat,” he said, “with furnishings on the coat. Put a hand on the coat—it should be very wiry and tight, harsh.”
Wilson advises potential owners to look at the parents’ coats. “If you have parents with good tight coats, you shouldn’t have any issues,” he said. “You get a slight idea when they’re a puppy, but parents are important. Stay away from shaggy dogs.”
In addition to physical attributes, attitude and pedigree remain just as crucial when determining whether a pup will grow into a proficient bird dog. Wilson recommends never choosing a dog based on its location or proximity to you, as a buyer. “A good dog could be in South Dakota or even on the East Coast,” he said. “Look at the pedigree, go back a generation or two. Look at where they’re registered. If they’re with NAVHDA, they have very rigorous testing. What you are looking for there is a dog that has passed NAVHDA utility tests. If you have NAVHDA showing up in the lineage, you have a potential clue that the dog could be good.”
Jay Martin has shipped his GWP puppies everywhere from South Korea to Australia to Nova Scotia. “Dealing with international sales is interesting but well worth it,” he said. “We send a lot of dogs up to Alaska—Alaskans really like the GWPs.” In his many years raising GWP puppies, Martin has come to recognize and appreciate how quickly they develop, with a natural point appearing as early as 7 weeks old, according to Martin.
“We register under AKC and NAVHDA,” he said. “People who like to hunt test, like to do NAVHDA or AKC. A lot of our hunt-tested dogs at 6 or 7 months of age do very well. This lets people know they develop very early, not having to wait a year to develop.”
Martin has seen several kids from 14 to 16 years of age train their first GWP hunting dog, delivered by Hard Point Kennel, and then receive their first NAVHDA hunting prize as a teenager. “If you get a dog with a lot of natural instincts in their genetics, the hunting part comes easy,” said Martin.
A natural pointer, GWPs operate at a high level of intelligence and remain pliable during training, making them an appealing breed to first-time bird dog owners, or hunters looking to enhance the potential of one particular dog.
“If clients have the opportunity to walk up to a dog on point, their percentage (of limiting out) goes way up,” explained Martin. “But you can train GWPs to flush in heavy cover situations. My dogs know when they get in those cattails, I can’t see them, so they flush birds. In short grass, they know they are supposed to point.”
“They’re very intelligent,” said Martin. “They absolutely want to please you. Their vocabulary gets very big. By the time that dog gets a year old, that dog will ask you questions and you’ll find yourself answering them.” Additionally, they make great family dogs, Martin attests.
“Our main goal (at Hard Point Kennel) is to produce a family dog that hunts,” Martin said. “If a dog is hunting 25 days out of the year, that is a pretty hardcore hunting dog. The rest of the days they better be able to lie on the couch and be with the kids.”
Wilson has nearly two decades of GWP stories—from his first dog Scrub, as a young pup, running back and forth along cornfield breaks in order to block running pheasants, to Tank chasing a crippled goose a quarter of a mile, over rice fields and into tall grass, then remaining on point until Wilson arrived.
“They don’t have a lot of flash,” said Wilson. “They’re just meat dogs, and they’re out there to hunt for you.”
Story by Jack Hennessy. Jack is the author of the blog “Braising the Wild.” Follow him on Twitter @WildGameJack or on Facebook at Facebook.com/BraisingtheWild.
Photo Credits: Feature – Steve Oehlenschlager, first – Caroline Fenton Photography, second – Chad Bloom, third – Anthony Hauck, final – Belle Schmidt