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Interview with a Connoisseur Part 2

Sun, 2017-09-24 23:05
In Part 1 I asked professional trainer Xavier Thibault about the various French pointing breeds and the French breeding system. Today I asked him about his approach to training those breeds.

When it comes to training a dog from one of the French pointing breeds should a trainer take a slower,  softer approach or one in which more pressure is applied?

Xavier in the field with a Braque FrançaisIn general, a lighter touch is best, but you can’t apply one method to all dogs, they are all different. So you have to adapt your approach to each individual. When I was a child, before learning to read and write, I learned to use a pen and pencil by coloring pictures in coloring books, and then I learned to draw letters and so on. For a young dog, it is the same sort of progression. The dog has discover things, learn from his mistakes and from his successes. The trainer’s job is to guide him along the path he has chosen for the dog. It takes about three years to fully train a dog, so don’t rush. Stay calm and carry on!

No matter what approach you take, it always comes down to being patient and giving dogs enough time to reach their full potential. Every dog, every person and every type of hunting terrain is different, and our French breeds clearly reflect that. Each was developed in its own region and each has its own character, style and look. So there is no single way to train a dog, there are as many ways to train as there are dogs, breeds and types of hunting terrains. You train a dog with your brain, not a training manual.

In general, English pointing breeds seem to mature earlier than many of the German pointing breeds. But what about the French pointing breeds? Are they slow to develop or are they more on the precocious side?

Xavier with a  Braque Saint GermainPointing can come seen quite early in some dogs from the French breeds but in general, that has nothing to do with how well the dog will eventually turn out. Some dogs point early and some point a bit later on, but what’s the use of pointing if the dog doesn’t know how to find game to point? Let's not forget that there are only two kinds of dogs: those that just seek and those that seek..and find!

A puppy is a puppy and will be that way until it matures. Trying to rush things along is useless. The most common mistake I see among amateur trainers is trying to do too much, too soon. If the dog is good, it will always be good. There is no need to hurry. I only start taking my dogs out to expose them to real game and actual hunting situations when they are about 6 or 7 months old. In the first few months, I don’t worry about how early they starting pointing or how far they range out. Developing a pointing dog is not a race.

What French breed would you recommend to the following kinds of hunters:
1. One that hunts mostly in the marsh, duck, teal, goose, but a little woodcock in the forest?
2. One that hunts, partridge, snipe, grouse, and from time to time, waterfowl in the marsh?

3. One that hunts a bit of everything, but in a hot dry conditions?

Xavier and a Braque de l'AriègeEach breed will adapt to the terrain it hunts, but it is usually best to choose a breed that has been developed for specific local conditions. In general, for wetlands and forest work, I would consider a dog from one of the épagneul breeds from Northern France like the the Picardy Spaniel, Pont-Audemer Spaniel, Saint Usuge Spaniel, French Spaniel etc. or a Kortahls Griffon. For dryer, hotter conditions, I would consider one of the French braques like the Braque Français Braque Saint Germain, Braque de l'Ariège etc.. That said, I sold a Braque Saint Germain to a guy in Canada and it did really well there. But our dogs are like us: they are at home wherever they end up hunting!


Xavier and two Braques Saint Germain, a Springer Spaniel and a Korthal's Griffon

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Here and There Part 4

Sat, 2017-08-19 18:00
“Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in.” ― Isaac Asimov

Painting by Paul de Vos (1595-1678) In parts one, two and three of this series, I examined some interesting differences in bird dog culture, populations and registration numbers in North America, the UK and Europe. In part four, I will share my observations on European and North American field trials and do my best to explain the different approaches each system takes when it comes to using them as a selection tool for producing gundogs for hunters.

Since most of this post is based on what I've discovered over the last 20 years or so, I've structured it almost like an interview.  The questions are based on comments/questions I've received over the years from various people in private messages and public forums, and bulletin boards. My answers are based on the ones I provided at the time but have been edited here for clarity.

How do North American and European trials differ? In what ways are they the same? 
Both Euro trials and NA trials are the domain of dedicated pros and amateurs doing their best to breed the highest performance animals they can. Both trial systems date back to the late 1800s, both systems are based on the idea the competition leads to better selection and both have succeeded in creating absolutely astounding canine athletes. And of course the styles differ... a lot. But style is subjective and arguing which one is "better" is even more futile than arguing about blonds being more attractive than brunettes. In any case, both have succeeded in creating absolutely astounding canine athletes.

All European and North American judges evaluate the style, class, brains, range, steadiness, use of nose of the dogs under judgment, but the main differences are in how they actually interpret those concepts. I will list some of the more important differences below.

Breed specific styles: On both sides of the ocean, all breeds have conformation standards. But in Europe, breeds also have what is called a 'working standard' that outlines (sometimes in excruciating detail) how the breed is supposed to hunt, run and point. Here is the working standard published by the Pointer club of Italy. As a result, European judges pay more attention to breed-specific styles as they evaluate a dog's performance in the field. Setters should run very close to the ground and have a feline way of moving and crouch or even 'set' on the ground while pointing. Pointers run with a more upright style and must point standing up. Both have to perform a 'commanded approach (once the point is established and the handler gets up next to the dog  both move slowly towards the bird until the flush, that is called a "coulée" in French, "guidata" in Italian and is judged for style, intensity etc. My European friends think we are bit strange for walking in front of a dog to flush a bird).  
Diagram showing the ideal pattern for spring field trialsGround Coverage: The biggest difference may be the fact that in Europe, for many types of field trials, they want to see the dogs hunt in a windshield wiper pattern. For example, in Spring Trials for British and Irish pointing breeds, as soon as they are released, the dogs make a huge cast out to 400-500 yards to the left, then turns into the wind, and runs past the handler out to another 400- 500 yards to the right. Each time it passes in front of the handler it should be no more than about 50 to 60 yards in front. Michele Comte provides a good explanation of this kind of search pattern on his Braque du Bourbonnais site (the distances he provides are for the Bourbonnais, for Setters and Pointers, they are much, much greater).

The field coverage  looks to be very inefficient, the dog just runs back and forth on what seems be the same line. 
Actually it is a bit of an illusion in the videos due to zooming the lens in from a long way away. Optically, this creates a sort of compressed look to the frame and the dogs seems to pass only a few feet in front of the handler. In reality the distance is about 40 - 60 yards. The search has to be in a certain pattern, width and "depth". A dog cannot pass by at more than gun range (more or less) or it is considered too big of a "bite". If it passes by closer than that it is considered too "tight" of a bite.

The dog is supposed to go to one side, then to the next and always pass in front of the handler in the right sized bite. And at the end of each cast the dog MUST turn into the wind...if he turns the other way, he will be eliminated.

The Diagrams imply that the dogs are always working into the wind otherwise these patterns would be inefficient. Is this always the case in practice? 

Yes. The dogs are always worked into the wind. Trials run from one field to the next, each dog or brace working a "virgin" area. Judges, gallery, dogs and handlers move from one field to the next and always start into the wind. Sometimes this just means walking from one field to the next, often it means getting into the cars/vans/trucks and driving to the best place to start.

Following the trials around is sometimes kinda tricky. Everyone meets at a central location, usually a town hall in the nearest hamlet and then are divided up into groups led by a judge. Each group is then given an assigned area that consists of enough room and fields to run all the dogs. Sometimes those areas are miles from the village and even if they start off close by, they end up miles away. So if you are not there at the start, finding any particular group is kinda tough since they could be anywhere within a given zone of many square miles.

After a couple of seasons though, I got pretty good at finding groups. I would just drive around the general area and look for the long line of vans and cars out in the middle of nowhere...often on pretty rough two-tracks between fields. Here is a video (in French) about spring field trials. It has some decent footage of dogs running and pointing (I suspect that some of the scenes are 'set-ups' with planted birds, but some are authentic). At about the 3:20 mark, there are scenes of what the 'gallery' of people, cars and trucks looks like at a typical field trial in France.


I would like to see how many finds they have compared to how many birds are bumped or ran over. 
If they bump a bird they are out. If the handler or judge puts up a bird they are out. That is why they go back and forth, they have to cover the entire area to make sure they get to the bird before the handler or judge. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Also it seems they want their pointing breeds to work more of a enlarged spaniel pattern.  Fair?
Yes, in spring trials run in fields of winter wheat they expect the dogs to have a a side to side windshield wiper pattern. The reason is that the fields are basically green carpets of sprouts...no real objectives or lines per se. In fact, they even run them across plowed fields because they actually hold birds. When I first started watching trials there I thought there was no way that any birds would be out in those fields. But there can be surprisingly large numbers of birds in some areas (others have fewer...some have next to none...it depends on the year and the weather etc.)

Léo at full speedDifferent Speeds: I've had the pleasure of watching Pointers and Setters run in North American field trials and have hunted over some on my own hunting grounds. And I've always marveled at just how fast they run. But nothing prepared me for the first time I saw Pointers and Setters run in spring time field trials in France. They looked like greyhounds on a race track!

But the difference is not how fast they are capable of running. If American-bred and European-bred setters and Pointers were run on a greyhound track, I think they'd be fairly evenly matched. It is just that American bred dogs are selected, conditioned and trained to run for longer periods of time. Some North American field trials are three hours long! European bred dogs are selected, conditioned and trained to run as fast as they are physically capable of running for 15-20 minutes at a time. 
The easiest way to understand the difference is to imagine a typical North American-bred Pointer or Setter dog running field trial. He is out there "hitting objectives" and really laying down a fast race. Now imagine that a rabbit pops up in front of him and he gives in to the temptation. He decides to be a baaaad boy and he takes off in hot pursuit of that rabbit. You see that "extra gear" he just switched into? Notice that no matter how fast he was running before that rabbit popped up, there was still one more gear of turbo speed he could kick it up to?

Ya, well THAT is the speed that the Euro dogs are expected (and bred and trained and pushed) to have for their entire run. Basically, they run like they are chasing something or are being chased by something. And that is why I say it is more like Top Fuel Drag Racing...the dogs don't run for a long time but they run really, really fast. Here is a video of a young European-bred setter in a trial. It is a good indication of the kind of speed they want to see.


Watching a few of the videos seems like the dogs are just hitting the after burners. Is the dog's nose able to keep up with the speed? 
It depends. When I first started attending trials I could not believe any dog could actually run that fast and nail a point...especially considering that they were looking for wild huns in ankle deep winter wheat! And a lot of dogs do in fact crash and burn. They run too fast for their noses and the conditions, they bump a bird...and they are eliminated. But, amazingly, some do manage to slam points as they are running full blast. And I think that is what everyone is looking for. Like the big league trialers over here, or car racing or other thrilling sports, they want to see contestants that are just on the edge of fabulous glory...or the agony of defeat.

Different Tails: Have a look at the video above again but this time, pay attention to the dog's tail as it runs. You will notice that it is held below the level of the back and doesn't really move much. The reason is speed. Euro handlers and breeders prefer a "dead" tail (in North America a cracking, slashing, animated tail is preferred). The idea is that any energy going to the tail is wasted and should go to the legs. And remember the example I provided above of a North American dog chasing a rabbit? Chances are, no matter how animated a dog's tail is when it is hunting, if it switches into turbo sprint mode, it's tail will drop and be far less active as it sprints to the horizon chasing a deer or jack rabbit.

Different Trial Formats and Standards: European judges follow the FCI working standards. Their version of "all-age" is called "Grande Quête" in French (literally "big quest" or "big search") and those trials are considered the highest level of performance. Most Grand Quête trials take place in the spring on wild huns. Grand Quête dogs are considered the top of the top and have a similar reputation to our all-age dogs (ie: some folks love em, others think they are too much dog).

Their cover dog trials are called "Autumn Trials" or "Woods trials" and are run on stocked pheasants and/or wild woodcock and other game (they also have trials on snipe for example). They usually take place in the fall. One of the most popular spots is in south western France near Bordeaux. Cover dogs are said to have a "quête de chase" (hunting search ie: gundog) so that, I think, would be the closest thing to what we call a cover dog (or in some ways like a NSTRA dog too I guess).


When you speak of Euro trials, what area of Europe are you talking about? When my bride was to Norway/Sweden for some FT's it sounds different than you describe.
The center of the European field trial world is Italy/France/Spain. That is where most of the pros are and most of the top dogs are bred (Italian dogs dominate). But there are lots of trials elsewhere in places like Holland, Denmark, Portugal, even Greece, Croatia, Russia etc.

There is a fair sized trial system in Sweden and Norway. But the Scandinavian system is a bit different. A lot of their trials are held in the mountains on ptarmigan etc. They also use pointing dogs more like the British do...ie: after the point, the dog is expected to rush in and flush the birds and then stay steady to wing and shot. From what I understand, Scandinavian trials are supposed to be more like a day out hunting with far less emphasis on the sort of super fast and wide windshield wiper casting that is the rule in trials in France/Italy/Spain.

In the spring the birds are singles, and covey's in the fall? 
In the spring the birds are paired huns that are "courting" and preparing to mate. The whole spring season starts in the south of Spain in January and works north all the way to northern France until mid April. The trial dates are set to coincide with when the wheat is just high enough and the birds are "paired" but not sitting on eggs. Most years it works out just right but sometimes the wheat is too high (or low) or the birds have not yet coupled up.

In the fall, the trials can be on woodcock (wild, almost always singles), snipe (ditto) but the biggest events of the fall season are shoot to retrieve events run on released pheasants. They take place in wooded areas where birds are set out the night before. If you want to see a TON of photos from field trials in France, Eric Beaulieu has a great site with some fantastic images here: http://fieldtrial.free.fr/

Here is a pretty neat video of a setter hunting woodcock in typical timberdoodle cover in France. The bird holds so tight that the guy manages to get some footage of it before it flushes!



Different Durations:
In a typical field trial in Europe, dogs run from 15 to 20 minutes, sometimes longer, but almost never more than 30 minutes. In North America, dogs run from 30 minutes to 3 hours!

What's the point of having a dog that runs like hell for 20-30 minutes and then goes back to the truck? Who hunts for only that long?
In the same way that all-age field trials over here do not really reflect an average day hunting -- most North Americans do not hunt quail from horseback -- top level "springtime" trials are not really designed to reflect the average day out hunting in Europe.

Both trial formats exist to develop the extreme ends of the canine spectrum. In North America, those extremes include things like speed, endurance, high tails etc. In Europe they want to see even greater speed, a different kind of ground pattern and a very breed-specific style of running/pointing/roading in. And let's not forget that a lot of trial formats over here (NSTRA, AKC, NAVHDA field components) are in the 30 minute range as well. They don't have as much of an endurance component either but they still manage to identify high performance hunting dogs.

When I first started attending European trials, I asked a judge why the stakes are only 20 minutes or so. He replied: "If I can't identify the traits I want to see and the style I am looking for in a dog in 20 minutes, it is not there...it will not suddenly appear after an hour or so".

I am of the opinion that short braces for adult dogs is conceptually flawed. For starters, and we have this happening in the US, selecting animals that run full blast is not IMO good for any breed. I want a nice hard pace but this trend is producing dogs that run frantically is not to the benefit to hunters or the breed.  
I would agree, and I am sure the hard core euro field trial breeders would agree with you...if their main goal was to produce dogs that were a benefit to hunters. It is not. Their primary goal is to win competitions. The fact that many of the winning dogs can offer some benefits to hunters and hunting dog lines is a fantastic secondary side effect and something that all hunting dog breeders should appreciate...but it is not the main focus of people trying to breed the perfect trial dog.

Field trial near Broomhill ManitobaAnd that, in essence, is the upshot and downside of competitive events. They are highly effective at distilling whatever specific traits you seek. But they eventually become a world unto themselves and the envelope they push does not necessarily match the performance envelope of the hunting field.

For the Europeans, one of the main traits seems to be speed. Having a fast dog is good...having a faster dog is better, having the fastest dog on the day is usually best and, if a dog does everything else right, speed will go a long way to getting you in the winner's circle. And breeders over there go to great lengths to get that speed. Accusations of "doping" are sometimes heard and it is fairly clear that Greyhounds and even Salukis may have been bred into some lines (to the detriment of the nose and point)...all in an effort to get faster and wider running dogs.

So what we see is that the dogs over there now are way, way faster than there were 30 years ago. And the trend can be seen across almost all the pointing breeds. Some Braques and Epagneuls, GSPs and Wirehairs are now approaching the speed and range of some Setters and Pointers. And it is competition that is driving the quest for "better" trial dogs.

We can see it in other traits as well and on both sides of the ocean. At some point in time in US field trials a high tail became a good thing. Then an even higher tail became better, and eventually a 12 o'clock tail became "best". In Europe, a certain "setter style" was good, more "setterish movement" became better and a really exaggerated feline "panther stalking its prey" kind of movement is now seen as best...and is in fact required if you want to win a trial. Yet it could be argued that both of these highly desired traits, the 12 O'clock tail in the US and the cat-like movement and "setting" in Europe are of very limited value to hunters.

The bottom line is that competition is all about pushing the envelope. I can't ever imagine a day when Euro breeds will say "Ok. that is all the speed we will ever need". The fact is, they will always be seeking that extra bit of speed even if they are close to the structural limits of canine physiognomy right now. And I can't imagine a day when US breeders will declare, "ok, that is all the drive or endurance we will ever need". They will continue to seek that extra "umph" they want to see in a dog. Heck we have 1 hour stakes, 2 hour stakes, even 3+ hour endurance stakes for pointing dogs...and all of them seem like a cake-walk compared to the Iditarod for sled dogs.

English Setter at full speed in a cover crop field in FranceCompetition is about pushing the envelope. That field trial envelope and the hunting dog envelope overlap in many areas is great, but they don't completely overlap and breeders who are full bore into field trials are all about pushing the envelope that gets them in the winner's circle.

In comparison to NA trials where there is an endurance component to it, how would they evaluate endurance for breeding purposes since trials are supposed to do such things? 
Their argument goes like this: "any dog that is capable of running at a top fuel pace for 20 minutes is far above the average in terms of athletic abilities. They have more than enough heart and lung and leg and with the proper conditioning all the endurance you need in a hunting dog".

Until I actually hunted with some of those field trial dogs, I was skeptical. But I saw it with my own eyes. I hunted all day, every day for 8 days straight with a pair of Setters from French field trial lines. And they kept kept up with all the other dogs. Now, they did NOT run like they do in trials...they ran fast but certainly not at the a** on fire pace they run in trials. They kept up a nice hunt all day speed the entire time.

Upon reflection, I realized that even if marathon runners have the best endurance of all, 800 meter runners and even 100 meter sprinters are still superb athletes. Hussein Bolt would never take gold in a marathon, but I am damn sure he could train to run a marathon very easily and I would bet my bottom dollar that he could run one faster than every couch potatoes on the planet.

But let me add one other thing. Whenever a system is created to select for extremes ...and you add money and competition... you get positive and negative results. The knock on Euro dogs running in the big trials is that they are too much dog, that they are hyper "run offs", that they burn out early and die before they are 6 years old etc. etc. And there is probably a grain of truth in there. The Italians produce nearly 20 thousand setters every year. Some of the dogs probably are nuts, some probably die early, some probably do run off. But in reality, men and woman are pretty good at developing high performance animals. It is not really rocket science. Breeders have been doing it on both sides of the ocean for 150 years now and they have produced animals that are light years ahead of where they were when they started.

Are the hunting spots, or "coverts", over there that small that you go through them that quickly and move on to another a ways away so the dog gets a rest between them? Do people have more dogs? Some spots are smaller, some are huge. Some guys have only one dog and hunt it for hours on end, others have more than one dog. It really depends on the country and the game they are hunting. I've been to spots in northern France (Beauce, Picardy) that looked like Kansas wheat country. And I've been to places in Italy that looked like Idaho. One thing that is different though is that there are more paved roads and traffic so more dogs get killed while hunting, and there are way, way more hares...which pointing dog guys hate! Check this video out...I think it is northern Italy somewhere:




Usually, when I talk dogs with dog men and women on either side of the ocean, I am met with genuine curiosity about 'the other side' and I do my best to explain the differences and similarities between the two worlds. However,  I have occasionally run into people on both sides of the Atlantic that are not only uninterested in what's happening on the other side, but openly hostile to the idea that high caliber field trial and hunting dogs could come from any other country or system of format. Here are some typical sorts of exchanges.

As far as style and hunt is concerned I don't see anything worthwhile in those European dogs. They have no class and seem no better than show dogs in the field. Well, I should point you towards thread I started on a French field trial forum. I posted photos of North American all-age Pointers and Setters that I consider to be awesome dogs. But the comments I got from the French field trialers are almost identical to yours...except the other way around of course. They simply could not get their head around what they see as a complete lack of style in our dogs and some did not even believe me that the dogs in the photos were purebred Pointers or Setters. One smart ass even said that we must be breeding Pitbull into our Pointer lines and Cocker Spaniels into our Setter lines and another accused me of photo-shopping the dogs' tails to make the stick straight up. They did not believe the dogs did that naturally. 
Look, the bottom line is this: there is simply no way to say which system is better or which one produces better dogs. Is NASCAR "better" than Forumla One? Are cricketers better than baseball players, rugby players better than football players? About the only thing we can say is that they are all freakin awesome performers and athletes.

And that is why I have concluded, after seeing a good number of dogs over here and over there, that any Pointer or Setter that has reached the top level of performance in North American or European field trials would run circles around 99% of the all the other dogs out there. Just as any pro rugby player or pro football player could run circles around 99% of the rest of the population.

Pointer at the break-away of a field trial near Broomhill, Manitoba
No one over here gives a damn about those dogs over there and you couldn't give me one of them. 
I've actually heard this line  from people in a half-dozen countries and I must say that despite my best efforts, I've made very little progress convincing them that there are good dogs in other regions of the world. But I think the most important thing to remember in all this North America vs Euro dog thing is that no one in Europe expects anyone in North America to value their dogs..and vice versa. If you don't give a darn about the dogs 'over there' it really doesn't matter. No one running dogs in the European championship is trying to market their dogs to quail hunters in Texas and no one running dogs at Ames does it in order to crack the Pointer and Setter market in Italy.

Fortunately, folks that look down on anything that isn't from their own neck of the woods are in the minority. The vast majority of field trialers and hunters I have met on both sides of the ocean are open minded enough to learn about good dogs..no matter where they are.  After all, a good dog is a good dog no matter where it may be.

Sleepy Pointer at training camp.
But our breeders have done more to improve Pointers and Setters than anyone else in the world.
Based on the all the research I have done I would say the Europeans have "evolved" their dogs just as much as we have ours. And what most North Americans don't realize is how huge the field trial scene is over there. Some trials can have over 500 dogs entered! There are pro trial guys all over the place and they even have their own union of sorts. They have national teams of dogs competing for the European cup and tons and tons of breeders, followers..and the scene is still growing. So yes, they have made HUGE strides in their dogs over the last 100 years. But there is also a dark side to it all. There is so much money and so much competition that charges of doping are now sometime made (dogs given stimulants, steroids etc.) and accusations of cross breeding (probably true, the Greyhound influence is really obvious in some Pointer lines and the Pointer influence is pretty obvious in some setter lines as well).

There are detailed descriptions of the dogs themselves as well as their hunting styles (not to mention photos) of Pointers and Setters from England in the mid to late 1800s and many of them are closer matches to modern NA dogs than they are modern European dogs. The Euros tend to keep more of a breed-specific look in even their highest level Setters and Pointers. So their dogs tend to have far more typical heads and coats because breeders have to have their dogs "confirmed" by a judge (ie; they must look like a setter or pointer and be within the breed standard for form) before they can get a field champion title.

That said, because of the enormous amount of competition and because of the nature of judging a dogs looks, Euro dogs now have exaggerated looks compared to North American dogs (well except for the tail). I mean, just look at this bad boy!

Hastro des Buveurs d'Air
One of my favorite photos that I ever took is of FDSB hall of famer Colvin Davis with my Pont-Audemer Spaniel pup in his arms. I told him that "Uma" was one of only three hundred Pont-Audemers in the world and that her mother was a kick a** field trial champion in France. Colvin just smiled, held her for the camera and said "Well I'll be!"

And THAT really told me a lot about guys like Colvin who have dedicated their lives to their pursuit. They are secure enough in the knowledge that what they have achieved is true greatness in their field...and they are able to understand and accept the fact that others can achieve true greatness too, even if they took a different road to get there.
Colvin Davis with Uma


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