A Discussion of Range in Pointing Dogs
This article by Dr. Alvin Nitchman appeared in the 1981 Christmas issue of the American Field
Opinions about range in pointing dogs vary greatly; in fact, range is probably the most controversial subject. Even in field trials where, presumably standards are set, there is a great difference of opinion as to how far a dog should range.
The distance a finished dog ranges from his handler is determined by heredity, environment, the dog’s speed and gait, training, and the cover or terrain he is hunting.
Heredity is a big factor in the range of dogs. A knowledgeable student of bloodlines can predict the natural range of some puppies once they have grown enough to gain their strength. Certain strains of pointers and setters breed fairly true as to range. Some are wide, almost to the fault of bolting; others, short or somewhere between the two extremes.
Environment plays a role in the final range a dog will have. Puppies allowed to run loose will develop into bigger running dogs (particularly those that run in groups and can self hunt together). Dogs allowed to run in open country with plenty of game will learn to hunt and range boldly. Robins, larks and other birds will encourage puppies to develop more range than those raised in the kennel. Unfortunately there are few places where dogs can run loose safely, the worst danger being injury or death by motor vehicles.
Speed and gait of the animal determines his range to the extent that a dog that is not physically able cannot run fast enough to range widely. Some dogs are close because they are not able to be otherwise. The animal must have not only the desire to hunt and range boldly, but the physical equipment to enable him to do so. (This is especially important when a dog is expected to run for a long time.) Most dogs shorten their range to a marked degree when they become tired. Trainers often use this method to shorten dogs they are trying to finish on game.
Training is responsible for the final range of the finished dog. The trainer can develop a dog that is wide or short using many methods available to him. Even young dogs with extreme range must have direction. They must be taught to run to the front and handle to the trainer. An all-age champion of mine, Magnum, was a case in point. He had the range, speed and gait to make a true all-age competitor, but he lacked direction. He’d go in any direction, oblivious to handler or gallery until he was taught to handle and run to the front.* He then became a good front-running competitor and multiple champion.
Many hunters make their dogs comfortable shooting dogs by teaching them their names, making them respond and hunting their pupil long heats. Tired, the dogs slow down, shorten their range and become comfortable for foot hunting.
Some very successful dogs have been taught to run. Some people call this whip running, but whipping is not necessarily the method used. Intelligent dogs with the right physical equipment and a desire to hunt can be taught to increase their range without any punishment. I believe that some puppies have been made to run at extreme range by the use of the whip; however, I doubt that these dogs have ever developed into successful field trial dogs.
At one time I campaigned only all-age dogs. I had to widen a few that were naturally too short for my purpose. Sweet Birch, a three time all-age champion female, is an illustration. She was a good bird dog but lacked the range that I needed. Her temperament was such that no force could be applied. She was taught to run through careful selection of terrain and judicious use of the horse to carry her to faraway cover which contained game. I used a whistle and voice inflection signals for her to go. By repetition of the same methods, over the same ground, she gained the necessary range and confidence to compete successfully in good competition. I think most dogs need and certainly this female did, supreme confidence in the handler in order to run at extreme range, many times out of sight in cover. Sweet Birch would run an all-age race for no one but me, and all the while remained an excellent foot shooting dog as well.
Any method used by a trainer to develop range must not interfere with the dog’s desire to hunt and find game. A prominent trainer once told me he could teach any dog to run. The trick was to get the dog hunting when he got the right range and pattern.
Cover and terrain affect range to a marked degree. The dog that competes successfully in Canada must also compete in the deep South where cover is dense and conditions are entirely different. The grounds in Albany, GA, are not the same as the bald prairie in Canada, yet we have dogs that can change their ranges to the degree that they win in both places. These animals are smart enough to handle most terrain successfully by varying their range. Often prominent field trial winners make the best foot hunting dogs.
I have enjoyed working dogs on foot with many professionals, including Paul Walker, hunting over champions like Fast Delivery, Home Again Mike, Spacemaster and many others. Most of my life I lived in New Jersey, where the hunting was better than most people suspected. I hunted quail, pheasant, grouse and woodcock. My field trial dogs were my hunting dogs. I never had a champion that would not adapt his range to my needs for foot hunting in any cover. Magnun, a six time all-age champion, and Potato Patch Sue, a six time shooting dog champion, were full brother and sister, one a natural all-age in range and one a natural shooting dog. But if I went woodcock hunting in the woods, I’d take him because he handled easier in dense cover.
Home Again Mike
Potato Patch Sue
Pointing dog fanciers, like other groups, have fads. At times the standard** (for all-age competition) is for tremendous range. Then the trend changes and judges look for shorter ranging dogs. When I saw my initial field trials in 1930 and 1931 at the English Setter Club, the great race was one in which we saw the dog at the breakaway, picked him up coming into the birdfield, got a point or two then he left on another big cast. Since then tastes have changed and more is seen of the dog on the back course. In fact birds are liberated on the back course and the dogs are expected to hunt for them. I think this is really an improvement.
I cannot write on range without commenting on the excessive range of some handlers. It has increased to the extent of ridiculous. Handlers proudly point out dogs to judges who have difficulty even seeing the handler, he’s so far off. Coupled with the increase in speed of judges and gallery, field trials are becoming poorer.
It has been my observation, in the last fifty years, that the consistent winners have been dogs with moderate range that hunt hard and point the most birds.
Range in shooting dog stakes has increased along with the speed, style, and class of dogs. The last twenty years has seen better and classier dogs. Competition is keen. Some winners in the 1930s and ’40s couldn’t succeed in todays shooting dog competition. The development of and search for excellence in the shooting dogs has been a healthy addition to field trials. The growth of walking shooting dog stakes in the last few years indicates the desire of many for dogs with less range. Men owning top foot-handled shooting dogs need and desire competition with the only major difference between them being range. The growth of all should be interesting to watch in the next few years.
We thought it would be interesting to present Dr. Nitchman’s views some 40 years on. How are things different today in regard to range in the all-age and shooting dog arenas?
* a dog’s tendency to naturally run to the front is a breed-on characteristic much sought for today.
** meaning accepted trend
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