This Is the Shorthair
by Jim McCue
NOTE: The following article originally appeared in Gun Dog Magazine as a 2 part series, part 1 in March/April ’89, part 2 in the May/June ’89 issue. Many thanks to Jim McCue for sending it, and for his help in adding new features to this page.
In less than 50 years the German shorthaired pointer has become one of this country’s most popular gun dogs. He earned that reputation gradually–without fanfare or ballyhoo–on his own merits. The shorthair is capable of a finished performance in a variety of hunting situations. He has a great nose along with much desire and ability, coupled with speed, stamina, style and guts. Intelligence and desire to please are two of his most valued assets. He is a near-perfect all around gun dog for the foot-hunter as he adapts his range to the cover and the terrain.
His versatility in no way interferes with his companionship around the home. His affectionate and playful nature make a big hit with the kids, his intelligence and shorthaired cleanliness is appreciated in the house. All pointing dogs owe that instinct to the Old Spanish pointer, directly or indirectly. His tendency to pause at bird scent (as does the hunting wolf, coyote and fox) was a great asset and much appreciated by the nobility of the day but his surly attitude and his plodding ways left considerable room for improvement. Whether the bird hunter used net, hawk or flintlock, he wanted a more pleasant and friendly companion. With the passing of “net hunting” he wanted a faster and more agile hunter too. Even before the shotgun, the bird hunter crossed the Spaniard with a couple of spaniel types (water and springer probably) and the setter was born. The English, Gordon and Irish setters all had their beginnings there. When the Old Spanish pointer was crossed with a mixture of foxhound and greyhound, the result was an English pointer with great speed but too much killer instinct and not enough nose. The setter was then crossed in many times to improve temperament, bloodhound was added for nose and more foxhound provided greater stamina, a slicker look and a still better nose.
While all of this was taking place in the British Isles, bird hunters on the Continent were developing their own pointing breeds. Any differences between these breeds depended, in the beginning, upon which scent hound breed the Spaniard was crossed with. All of them were some variation of the now extinct Hounds of St. Hubert, the eighth century staghound, cold-trailer and ancestor of all bloodhounds. The Old German pointer of the early 1700’s was the result of one or more of these crosses all aimed at a better nose. There is little doubt that the Old German pointer’s forebears were actually as much French as German and had originally come into the country as merchandise or as royal gifts from France and Spain.
With the social changes of the 1800’s came great changes in hunting opportunities. It was probably at this point that the concept of a multi-purpose dog (Gebrauchshunde) first came into the mind of some thoughtful German huntsman. This name would be-for a brief time-the German shorthaired pointer (Deutsche Kurzhaarige Vorstehhund). The last word of the name was dropped as soon as its significance became clear because the German shorthair (Deutsch Kurzhaar) would not be just a pointing dog any more. The same name problem would face the new breed when it came to America. The shorthair was the first of the versatile breeds and in time became the most popular of the versatile breeds in this country.
Although the smooth bore was the first firearm and came into existence in the 14th century, it wasn’t until the 16th century that it had developed to the point that it was possible to take birds on the wing with it. It was another 200 years before wing shooting really came into vogue (1700’s) and another 100 years after that before sportsmen had breech-loading, double barreled shotguns. As the shotgun developed so did the demand for the upland game bird specialists.
It was at about this time on the Continentthat the right to hunt, heretofore reserved solely for the nobility, became slowly available to the middle class. The professionals, the merchants, teachers and the like, began to buy, or at least lease, hunting lands–preserves. This changed the whole complexion of the hunting game. A variety of game, both large and small, was available on these preserves. Much of it was hand-raised and all of it carefully managed and protected. In a matter of a few hours a German and his dog might hunt Huns and rabbits, a roe buck, a wild boar or a fox, and maybe some ducks. An Englishman – even if he could participate in such a hunt-would require four or five separate specialized breeds to handle the job-including a bloodhound to trail his wounded buck.
The practical Teutonic mind wanted none of that. He said the man who had many dogs had no dog. He wanted a full-time friend, one that would be by his side at all times, a single canine hunting buddy with whom he could share all his hunting days afield and who would join him by the fireside at night as companion and protector. And to this day the shorthair is a better family dog than a kennel dog.
He wanted a dog who would put his good nose deep to the ground to trail furred game yet hold it high searching for the scent of Huns or a running pheasant, a dog with plenty of pointing instinct and birdy desire, one who would retrieve fur or feather from land or water. He must have the size, strength, build and courage for any hunting task. His coat must be short but dense, lay flat and have a firm, coarse surface texture to protect his body in heavy cover and to shed burrs. He must have a fine dense undercoat for protection from the cold. The fur of the head and ears should be shorter, thinner and softer. He must be good looking, intelligent, alert; he must develop early and be easily trained. He must have a friendly, pleasing temperament but be tough and sharp on predators. Many of these characteristics were enumerated early as goals to be achieved. The task the German huntsman set for himself was a tough one. It would require years of breeding and testing, of trial and error, of sweat and frustration-and for success, considerable breeder cooperation and not a little luck.
Right from the beginning, the goals shared by most shorthair breeders were pretty much the same. There was, however, no agreement on how that would be accomplished. There were two schools of thought on the subject. One group felt they could reach the desired versatility by starting with, and emphasizing, physical appearance, form and conformation. The other group felt the path to success lay by field testing for all of the desired working characteristics and breeding only the animals which proved to be the best “through efficiency to type.”
The “form” group led by Karl Brandt and Samezki were nationalistic, wanted nothing British. They wanted to use only German stock. This group knew that to retrieve a fox over an obstacle, for example, the dog must stand taller, have a bit longer neck and a lot stronger neck and back. And they set out breeding toward that conformation, trying to get function to follow form. They favored the long, dangling, circular ears and the stopless or Greek profile as indications of a purebred German precisely because the English pointer’s ears were small and tight, and his dish face had a definite stop. This small but vocal faction held the upper hand in the beginning and as a result progress was much delayed because many fine performing specimens were discarded because they failed to exhibit the “legendary” ancient German conformation.
The “function” group was led by Prince Albrecht zu Solms-Braunfels and Baron von Zedlitz. Solms was a pioneer breeder, had a fine kennel of pointers and setters (and some experimental breeds), pushed for the introduction of pointer blood. Zedlitz was a sports writer using the pen name “Hegewald” and was of the same mind. This met with considerable opposition from the patriotic, “form first” boys. It is difficult to know exactly what breeds produced the shorthair because of this conflict. In the beginning, many German breeders were secretive, intentionally vague and evasive about their breeding stock to avoid being labeled “Anglophiles.” In those early days it was mostly talk and most of the discussion centered on the multipurpose dog to come, the pointer debate, what tests (field trials} should be set up, the strange results of various crosses and “what should we try next?” Because in the beginning pointing was about all one could count on, the pointing instinct seemed to be dominant in most crosses.
Everyone knew that bringing in pointer blood would be hazardous. The question was: would improvement in nose, pointing instinct and slickness be worth the loss in versatility? Pointer blood reduced trailing ability, dampened enthusiasm for water work and brought cowardice before predators. It decreased interest in retrieving and it thinned and softened the protective shorthair coat.
The Germans make a point of the fact that there is no English bloodhound in the shorthair but admit to the role of bloodhounds in shorthair development. There were plenty of bloodhounds (Schweisshund–scent dogs) around at the time and the German themselves were breeding three types. The French also had three different types–actually the French breeds seemed to have the edge in appearance but most all stood taller and were faster than the bloodhound. The French Gascon hound may have been used. He was the first tall, good-looking, smoothfaced bloodhound although he still had the long, dangling ears.
We read about as frequently as the “Bloodhound” error that it was the German nobility who originated the shorthair. Such was not the case. A study of those involved in the foundation of the breed reveals very few “high born.” Most were middle class-those who had just gained the right and the wherewithal to own, or at least, lease hunting rights. The nobility error may have crept in because of the later development of the Weimaraner by the Royal Court of the Weimar Republic.
It was the 1872-whelped, brown and white Hektor I ZK I (ZK, Zuchtbuch, stud book) still showing his Old German beginnings many generations back, who was dog Number 1 in Volume I of the German Stud Book. The Karl Brandt crew set the Breed Standards to withhold registration in the Stud Book to any dog lacking their idea of a good German head. And they often did just that, discarding many fine performers and slowing the effort toward versatility. It is no wonder there was a great deal of squabbling; the wonder is that the program survived at all. It almost didn’t. Many of the early generations’ experimental crosses produced little beauty and even less signs of suitability. Often those few which did show signs of suitability were not permitted to be registered. There was a lot of breeding and there was a lot of bucketing. Frankly, it was discouraging almost to the point of despair. Some did give up. Prince Solms withdrew from the Klub Kurzhaar because of the bickering although he did stay in dogs.
Fortunately the conformation boys finally got bogged down chasing stopless faces and long, round ears. Those breeders with open minds eventually saw the folly of “function follows form,” finally saw the virtues of Prince Solms’ advice to use the best dogs (of any breed) wherever they were found, test them in the field for all the desired characteristics, then use for breeding only those dogs which perform best in the field. In the beginning, do not worry about appearance, he told them. Forget about form, type. It will take care of itself with time. Eventually the Prince’s admonitions were accepted, followed and appreciated. Years later we read (idiomatically} in the official Shorthair Studbook, Volume VI (1902), “The Type is evolved from among the breeding stock by continuously using the same dogs at stud that are most efficient in hunting.” “Through efficiency To Type,” it said.
Few realize how close we came to never having a Deutsch Kurzhaar. Thank God for the enlightened and dedicated few who hung on despite the odds against them. They will never know what pleasure they have provided generations of American hunters.
That great, rich river of inheritance flowed strongly throughout the breed, improving and strengthening it. The practical, good-looking, utility dog capable of excellence in all the hunting requirements of field, woods and water was no longer just a dream, it was a fact. The traits were fixed, the impossible had been achieved. And it was about this time that some of the best of those were being exported across the Atlantic to the USA.
From old studio photographs and dog-eared, family-album snap shots of German immigrants, we see the shorthair pictured as a family member in this country within 20 years of the registration of Hector I IVol. I, No. 1, 1872 German Stud Bookl. But the real beginning of the breed in the United States came with the importations by Charles R. Thornton, a physician, of Missoula, Montana, starting in 1925. He brought in only the best-all top German-Austrian bloodlines were represented. By that time the versatile characteristics had become fixed in the breed. For the first time the hunting qualities of a number of different hunting breeds had been successfully fused together, melded into a single all-purpose hunting dog-the German shorthair.
In a 1926 issue of the American Field, Dr. Thornton discussed the new breed in some detail: “The coat is longer than our English pointer and very closely knit, resembling the coat of the hair seal…. They stand on strong legs and good feet, are short coupled, well muscled, deep barrel-shaped chest, characteristically expressive eyes and intelligent head; long, broad ears, regulation cropped tail; extremely elegant and smart in carriage and movement. On point they are strikingly beautiful. They begin retrieving as early as six weeks of age…. They are naturally staunch (on point) and require little or no training. On game they can give one a real thrill. They will point any kind of game that will lie to cover and tree those that flush and take to the trees, where, as a rule, they hark ‘treed’. I’ve used them in packs on coons just that way. After once they start pointing they will invariably hack any other dog they see pointing, sometimes honoring from a distance of 150-200 yards, remaining absolutely steady until the bird is flushed. This backing instinct comes naturally and puppies need not be trained to honor…. As to speed and range they compare favorably with our English pointers and setters of the shooting-dog class. They seldom range farther than a quarter of a mile from the gunner. I have hunted them side by side with some of my fast Llewellins and they invariably located more birds…. They hunt heavy cover with ease and eagerness, naturally adapting their range to suit conditions. As retrievers they are at home on land or in water and they will locate dead or wounded game in the heaviest brush or briar….” So spoke Dr. Charles Thornton, back when the shorthair was the new kid on the block.
In 1931 in a Nebraska brimming with pheasant and sharptail, quail and prairie chickens, a couple of hunting buddies, Ernest Rojem and Walter Mangold, imported a good pair of shorthairs with the help of Rojem’s brother, Peter, in Germany. Six-month-old Claus v SchleswigKonigsweg and Jane v grunen Alder who was two years old and trained. Both were royally bred.
Walter Mangold was the postmaster at Bennington, Nebraska and Claus went to work with him every day. The dog’s job was to ride the children around piggyback. Although he was a gentle dog, he was a good watch dog and no stray ever bothered him twice. In a Nebraska where summers were often over 100 degrees and winters to 30 below with 12-foot drifts, it took a rugged dog just to survive, but Claus met the challenge at every level. Walt said that he was a fireball on land and didn’t even let sand burrs stop him and that they many times sent him through drifting ice for duck and he never failed to get the job done.
A year later a former German gamekeeper, Joseph Burkhart, of St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin, brought in three outstanding specimens which will be found in most early U.S. pedigrees: Bob v Schwarenberg, Arta v Honreusch and Feldjager’s Grisette. All of them proved their worth. From the second mating of Bob & Arta, Jack Shattuck got a pup he named Fritz v Schwarenberg, widely and successfully campaigned, he became the foundation of the Schwarenberg strain in the USA. Arta was sold to New York and there bred to Hallo Mannheimia, a KS Frei Sudwest son, recently imported. From that mating Joe Burkhart picked Treu v Waldwinkel who became one of the top all-time producers in the USA. Most of the early imports proved to be top quality-and generally related. This meant that with only a handful of mates to choose from, every breeding-in the beginning and for several generations- just about had to be good linebreeding. For pedigree details, consult The New German Shorthaired Pointer by C. Bede Maxwell, published by Howell Books. Much of the data presented here comes from that source.
The action took place on a beautiful Maine lake in October in the late 1930’s. The faint babble of ducks came to my ears while I was still in the woods. When I peeked out I could see them. There was a nice raft of ducks, more than 60 yards from shore and a good 200 yards down the beach from me. In that area there was a brown dog trotting by the water’s edge coming toward me. I took my eyes from the dog to the ducks and when I looked back at the dog he was going away from me. While I watched he turned and came back toward me and then he suddenly disappeared. It was baffling.
Cutting back around through the woods until close to where the dog, now trotting back and forth again, and the ducks, now closer to the shore were, I saw the blind and recognized the hunter hiding there. I stayed hidden to watch. It was fascinating. This nice, dark brown ticked dog with a long cropped tail (no breed I had ever seen before) continued to trot back and forth several times-never apparently paying the slightest attention to the ducks- then return to the blind momentarily, then out again he would trot, each time a little further from the water. All the while the curiosity of the ducks, like a magnet, drew them closer and closer to shore, as antelope come to a waving flag-and they do! It wasn’t long before the mallards were right along the shore. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
At this point the hunter jumped up. The raft rose as a single duck, quacking loudly and clawing the air for altitude. Three shots rang out and four ducks, one a cripple, dropped out of the flock. “Fetch, Duke,” the man hollered. The big brown dog raced for the water, leaped high and hit the water a full 10 feet from the shore and ignoring the dead ducks swam directly for the cripple which was very much alive. The duck dove and headed for the deep water with the dog close behind. The dog swam well (I later learned that he has webbed feet} but it took a good 15 minutes before the dog worked the exhausted duck back into the shallows and ran him down. Duke brought the cripple to hand, then headed out for the three birds which hit the water dead. On one retrieve the dog brought in two of the ducks at once. Only after bringing in the last duck did he shake the water from his fur.
“That’s one hell of a dog, Lawrie, what is it?” I asked.
“It’s a German shorthaired pointer. It’s new to this country and I can tell you it does a lot more than point. It does everything. Smartest dog I ever owned and you know I’ve owned a few. This morning on our way to the lake we picked up two partridge and a late woodcock. All pointed and all delivered quickly and tenderly to hand. I use him on everything.”
“Well, what’s this thing with the ducks? I’ve never seen that before.”
“Oh, that. It started back before the shotgun, in the ‘netting’ days. It’s called tolling. The dogs were taught to lure the ducks into a funnel-shaped net trap. This shorthair picked up tolling so fast it scared me. They’re very intelligent animals.”
“How do they stand your rugged Maine winters-the short hair, I mean.”
“No problem. ‘Short’ doesn’t mean thin. This is no sparse English pointer coat. Feel that coat-it’s heavy, dense, closely knit. Feel it, go ahead.”
“It feels stiff, harsh to the touch-coarse.”
“It is. It’s tough-it’s not the length of the coat that’s important anyway, it’s the texture and density that make the difference-arctic seals, for example, have short hair. Easier swimming-quicker drying. A long soft coat or a long wiry coat doesn’t make the water a single degree warmer, they only mean more drag while swimming-ask the seal.”
That was my introduction to the shorthair. But it was almost 15 years before I got my own-there was high school to finish, college, grad school, war, marriage, kids, apartments, et al. But I’ve made up for it in the last 35 years and although I enjoy watching all dogs work in the field, I never met a shorthair I didn’t love.
The breed caught on quickly. Less than 15 years after Thornton’s first importation, there were sufficient numbers to apply to AKC for recognition. The center of activity was in the MinnesotaWisconsin area, another indication the shorthair thrives in rugged country. The group had difficulty with the name. They wanted German Shorthaired Pointer-Retriever Club of America, Inc. AKC said, “No way.” Pointers are pointers, retrievers are retrievers and never the twain shall meet. But the shorthair is more than a pointer and restricting him has not been helpful. Even many shorthair owners themselves, after calling the dog a pointer for so long, are unaware of the total versatility of their shorthairs. Because there was no other choice, the “German Shorthaired Pointer Club of America” became the name of the AKC Parent Club. The National German Shorthaired Pointer Association is the name of the Parent Club to the American Field. The word pointer, in both instances-as Vorstehhund had been in Germany-was the culprit. It is too restrictive; it has hampered the growth and development of the shorthair in this country.
At about the time I met my first shorthair in Maine the breed was moving into northern California too. In the San Francisco area at Saratoga, Don Miner, a professor of Banking & Finance at San Jose State, started looking for a shorthair because, as he said, “I heard they had a ‘choke bore’ nose, and I heard you could use them on everything and since I hunted everything that’s what I wanted. My first shorthair, Faustina v Schwarenberg, I got out of a local bitch, Sox v Ammertal owned by a guy named Abbott who had sent her to Jack Shattuck’s Rusty in Minneapolis to be bred. That was before Rusty had gained his Dual title. Anyway, Faustina was a nice solid liver bitch and she did have a ‘choke bore’ nose and she did hunt everything
“In 1946 three of us went up north of Tahoe in Carpenter Valley [in the Sierras] to hunt deer and I took Faustina [dogs were legal]. I wanted to see what she would do. I didn’t know what to expect. We arrived the afternoon before opening day and after setting up camp headed out to get the lay of the land and stretch our legs. We left the guns in camp but we took Faustina. In just a few minutes we could hear her giving voice. She sounded like she was over a canyon or two. As we listened we could tell she was coming closer and closer. I figured she was running a deer. Was I surprised when a big black bear went flying by us with her in hot pursuit! I was able to call her off the bear-she was pretty well trained for only a year old. Anyway, we went on a little further and she slammed into a classy point. We kicked around in the brush and flushed a covey of Mountain Quail. Not more than ten minutes later she put two deer right in front of us. We could have taken both of them easily.
“The next morning we hunted the rim rock around Carpenter Valley. By noon she had pushed four bear- two of them cinnamons- right to us. Later in the afternoon I heard her baying again and coming down the mountain closer and closer. I thought she was on another bear when out of the woods right in front of us appeared a beautiful big buck not more than 50 yards away. I shot it through the neck and it dropped dead. Moments later she ran up and jumped right on top of the deer and mauled it a little before I called her off. We dressed out the deer and took it back into camp and under similar circumstances filled out other tags that evening. I don’ t know to this day if that’s the way shorthairs are supposed to handle big game but it was great for us.
“Since we filled our tags early we moved down to Grimes in the Sacramento Valley to hunt pheasant around the old Goodwin Ranch- much in rice paddies. It was tough hunting, the dogs would be in water sometimes up to their bellies. Her coat shed the water well-dried quickly-and the long, sharp briars in that area didn’t bother her a bit. It was great not to spend hours picking burrs too. We got a few ducks that day. She brought them in right to hand. I had never trained her; it just came naturally.
“Nothing is sharper than rice stubble; it cuts. It would literally shave the hair right off her face- her nose would be raw, her teats bleeding, but she never let up. This was tough hunting but she was tougher.
“I dropped an old cock pheasant that fell into a big brush pile. I sent her for the retrieve. She went right through the brush pile. I called her back and put her into the pile; she went right through again. I got disgusted and went into the pile myself-on my hands and knees. When I finally crawled out, there was Faustina sitting there with that big cock bird in her face. That’s when I realized that even a year-old pup knows more about hunting than any human. That’s when I realized that we had finally found the perfect dog for our way of hunting.
“Each year she learned more and did better. We developed a real bond between us. She was a part of our family. Only the Lord knows how much game, furred and feathered, I shot over her. She provided me with some great pups too. I enjoyed her friendship for almost four years till someone poisoned her. I found her limp body by our stream and buried it. The grave is still kept and marked. That was 40 years and many shorthairs ago-but there is still a very warm spot in my heart for my first and only Faustina.”
The shorthair is a versatile hunting dog, developed by the practical Tutonic mind for the foot hunter whose way of life is the “mixed bag.” The upland specialist is the pointer; in the duck blind it’s the retriever; and on the trail, the scent hound. How incongruous the sight of a Lab searching the broad, open expanse of Saskatchewan prairie for sharptail, or an orange and white pointer shivering in a sleet drenched Maine duck blind. Yet the shorthair is a natural in both areas-and, indeed, in the woods and on the trail as well, if we chose to use him there. One of the great charms of the shorthair lies in his practical, utilitarian inheritance which permits him to join his master and family in all their hunting adventures. You need not hunt every species the shorthair can handle but it’s nice to know you have that option.